When historians of the future tell the tale of religious orders, they will look back on our current time as the beginning of a new era. We all know that there are fewer nuns and monks than ever. The old orders are dwindling as people are no longer drawn to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Non-Catholics are looking for a way to plug-in, as well. It is getting harder and harder to find a nun these days. However, this is not the end!
There are many different types of religious movements, and each of them began in the wake of a societal change. It may be useful to see that each of these movements is a protest against the excesses of society and church of their particular day. There is a new movement beginning right as we speak.
Desert Fathers and Mothers: This was the earliest form of Christian monasticism. People literally went off into the desert and lived as hermits. Some of them practiced extreme lifestyles, such as St. Simeon who lived above the earth on a platform, never coming down for years. The draw here was that people were renouncing the materialism and social strata of the Roman Empire.
Monasteries: As the Roman Empire disintegrated, Europe dove head first into the Middle Ages. Western Europe was characterized by rampant political instability, like modern day Third World nations. Folks lived mostly in rural areas scattered around the countryside. Monasteries kept learning alive, teaching the peasants agriculture and food preservation and offering protection during times of attack. They were the backbone of early Medieval society. Their strict rules of daily life were a tonic for a chaotic world.
Friars: St. Francis and St. Dominic started the mendicant orders as Europe developed larger towns. These were more "freelance" orders who travelled the countryside two by two preaching and serving. They were not sequestered in a monastery but rather drifted around where the people were. The stability of the monastery was not as necessary.
Jesuits & Specialized Orders: As towns turned into cities and as Europe begun a wave of exploration of the New World, Asia and Africa, new orders formed again. The Jesuits were like a special "task force" who could be dispatched to addressed particular issues, such as missions work. Other orders became specialized around tasks such as education or nursing to match the increased specialization of the cities. It may also be useful here to see many Reform movements as also originating out of a witness to a less-institutionalized Christianity, such as the Anabaptists.
Modern Charity Orders: People are now more and more aware of the intense disparity of wealth in the world. In the Middle Ages there was certainly poverty, but odds are you were just as poor as your neighbor. "Helping the poor" meant giving bread to the guy next door if his flour went bad. Today, there are millions of impoverished people, and we have access to them through modern transportation and the media. We are also more aware of the larger social structures that produce poverty. There are orders such as Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity who devote themselves to direct service of the poor in large scale operations. There is a renewed activism for justice.
The New Monasticism: We are in a period of religious ecumenism. Obedience is less appealing as traditional religious denominations are softening their divisions. We are tired from centuries of religious fighting. People believe there are multiple spiritual roads, and on any given day we are exposed to any number of them. The old vow of chastity lacks appeal, as people don't see a life of celibacy as a means of spiritual purity, anymore, nor are there feudal laws of inheritance so heirs don't compete with the Church for property. Yet, there is still the call to organize Christian communities.
A new monasticism is arising all over the place. People from many different backgrounds are hearing the same call. People are hungry for community, and they want to break down barriers. They are not drawn to lifetime vows nor being part of a hierarchy. They want to increase fellowship in our world which is starving for human contact, not live a life of silence. There are grassroots communities of Christians springing up in a very organic way. They are often rooted in a particular church, but people are drawn to them more for their way of life than through denominational allegiance.
Evangelicals are crazy for the new monasticism. There are movements emanating from the Anabaptists. Protestants in general are drawn to it, as well. There is the Landing group right here in Columbus, OH. People rave about Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution and the Simple Way community he helped start. Groups of Christians all over are starting to do something like this on their own. As a friend of mine recently said, this is definitely the work of the Holy Spirit as these groups are oozing from everywhere and they don't even know about each other. They are all responding to the same hunger. I've only begun to start looking in these groups, and I'm not sure how they are all related, yet.
I see the new monasticism as originating with the Catholic Worker. In the 1930s, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started a movement of lay people who live in intentional Christian communities. This movement draws inspiration from Benedictines and Franciscans. They live in poverty in the cities or on farms. They share what they have with the poor and are trumpets of social justice activism. Community, intentional poverty, charity, justice, hospitality, non-violence and spirituality all blend together as pillars of the same foundation. Catholic Worker communities scattered all across North America function as the skeleton of the peace and justice movement today. I consider it a "lay monasticism." Many people in the New Monasticism use the Catholic Worker as the model.
This is a very rough sketch of the history of religious orders. These periods were not mutually exclusive: There are still Benedictine monks today, and people in the Middle Ages practiced works of charity. New movements begin, but the old ones do not die out completely, as there is always a need for their witness, as well. I hope that all of these movements stick around. No one knows yet where the new movements are going to lead, but it is sure exciting to watch!
ADDED LATER: It is interesting the way the Protestant desire to get back to the tight-knit, early Christian communities is blending with the Catholic impulse to form movements and orders within the larger Church. There might be something really good happening here . . .