How the hipster can save the monk (and vice versa)

Religious orders are facing what is euphemistically called a vocational crisis. In truth, many are dying. Vocations are down, the average age of members is rising, and approximately 3,000 religious leave the consecrated life every year. The reasons are many and complicated, but surely the decline builds upon itself. As fewer people have contact with men and women religious, the religious life becomes less accessible.

Monastic life, in particular, seems alien to the secular imagination. Paradoxically, even as the influence of monastic communities decreases, their wisdom and example are increasingly relevant to a distracted, digital world. Rod Dreher’s much-discussed book The Benedict Option encourages Christians to draw on Benedictine spirituality to carve out a new existence apart from the larger secular society. But perhaps what we need today is for the monastic tradition to make itself a bit more prominent in American culture.

Fortunately, monastic communities have the opportunity to do just that. By a bizarre twist of fate, the taste of the age, “hipster taste,” runs parallel to monastic notions of work, prayer and what we might call the monastic aesthetic. With some ingenuity and a touch of self-promotion, monastic communities might find themselves in great demand.

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Trying to define the term “hipster” is a fraught endeavor. But if there is a unifying characteristic that hipsters share, it is a passion for and pursuit of authenticity.

For something to possess authenticity in the eyes of hipsters, it should be exclusive, unknown or rare, or it should have roots in tradition. (Ironically, in hipster culture, the label “hipster” is pejorative because to acknowledge authenticity is to destroy it; calling someone a hipster is tantamount to calling her a fraud, whose tastes are forced.) Hipsters are drawn to craft beer, obscure cheeses, organic farms, taxidermy and homemade preserves. They favor hand-dipped candles, old-fashioned stationery, Indian headdresses and the lamentable industrial-chic decor and exposed bricks that mark so many new restaurants and bars.

Trying to define the term “hipster” is a fraught endeavor. But if there is a unifying characteristic that hipsters share, it is a passion for and pursuit of authenticity.

That vision is spreading. Just north of New York City, a start-up company has built cabins in the woods that are advertised as retreat spaces for writing or taking a break from the grind of city life. It sounds and looks like a hermitage to me. The only thing missing is God.

Contemplation, community, gardening, cooking meals for friends—these require constancy, attention and space, all currencies that most urban hipsters lack. As a result, hipsters have shifted their focus from experiencing the authentic to documenting it. The race for authentic and exclusive experiences accelerated with the introduction of social media, particularly Instagram. Individuals are now the publishers and curators of their own work. People spend large amounts of time and money trying to find authentic experiences and products as well as beautiful, homey scenes. (Bonus points if those experiences are found abroad, particularly in Japan.) Then they shoot photos and video and share them as external markers of their own taste or success and perhaps as an undernourished effort to tap into something deeper, maybe even something spiritual. An image of yourself pensively gazing onto the heath is worth more than the actual moment, adulterated as it may be by the acts of staging and sharing the photograph.

•••

As often happens with countercultures, hipsterism and its values have been co-opted by mainstream consumer culture. This was not particularly difficult because this brand of authenticity was acquired—like any cultural signifier in our age—by purchasing “stuff” or buying experiences.

As Matthew Schmitz noted in First Things, “heritage and vintage are the marketer’s magic words.” To that list I would add “hand-crafted.” Everything—from espresso to cosmetics—is advertised as hand-crafted. Chain stores with names like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie emerged to cater to hipster tastes, and then luxury versions of hipster favorites were introduced. (It recently became possible to spend $800 on a hooded sweatshirt.)

Hipster is no longer primarily the name of a sociological class but an umbrella term for a segment of consumer taste. That taste is most concentrated among urban, college-educated 20- and 30-somethings, yours truly included, and shapes everything from the products we buy to endless streams of curated “lifestyle” media that dominate the internet.

As hipster taste has spread to the mainstream, so have the goals of authenticity and contemplation, though in ever cheapened and commercialized variations. Recently, an entire cottage industry has developed around “mindfulness.” Bookstores sell pocket-size guides to “Mindfulness Made Easy,” while a lifestyle magazine offers tips for making “mindful jam.” Smartphone apps teach mindfulness, and insurance companies promote mindfulness as a way to manage stress, achieve wellness and reduce health care costs. Major companies and their advertising agencies spend millions to project a profitable image of authenticity. They want their products—whether organic eggs, tractors or enterprise sales software—to be represented by real people and have an authentic feel.

Yet while the term authentic is by now hackneyed beyond recovery, if you strain hard enough to hear beyond all the noise of marketing and self-promotion, you can hear the faintest cry for help as people, adrift in a sea of faceless consumerism, look for a human connection.

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What does this mean for you, members of religious communities who might be reading this? A few things. Consider how closely hipster ideals, as portrayed in magazines and advertisements, now mirror central monastic ideals—simplicity, authenticity, community, self-sufficiency, contemplation. You have rules, long histories and theologies that illuminate these ideals and shape your daily rhythms. Hipsters do not.

You have rules, long histories and theologies that illuminate these ideals and shape your daily rhythms. Hipsters do not.

One way to engage the world might be to help hipsters—I write as one of them—understand why we find it gratifying to make our own bread, tend our own gardens or brew our own beer. What is it about bodily practices and habituation that speaks to our souls? We know the slowness of our hobbies does something to us, but we don’t quite know what it is.

To learn, we will have to become aware of your existence and your gifts. So you ought to photograph your community and publish those photographs on Instagram. This practice offers an opportunity to meet people where they are—which, by and large, is not anywhere close to a contemplative religious life.

The average young adult spends over four hours of each day on her phone, and she checks social media channels an average of 17 times per day. Further, young people are averse to speaking about religion explicitly. They lack the imagination and vocabulary even to broach the subject of monastic life. But they do possess a highly developed visual grammar and are interested in stylized photographs of agriculture, cooking, handicraft, drinks and books.

Further, contemplative orders should reinsert themselves into the public sphere as the keepers and guardians of real mindfulness. The mindfulness moment that America is having is marred by an extreme sense of self-centeredness. But perhaps mindfulness is contemplation’s shadow on the cave wall. Of course, cultivating a contemplative life requires a lifetime of struggle, a challenging proposition in our age of instant gratification. But a simple—admittedly gimmicky—change of language, from contemplation to “monastic mindfulness,” could generate an audience of people willing to read your articles or attend your retreats. You may not need or even want that audience, but they need you.

All of which is to say, you have a fascinating preaching opportunity, and when this bizarre cultural moment shifts, you will lose that opportunity. So start an Instagram account. Take advantage of the fact that your daily lives entail much of what the authenticity hounds are clamoring after. Take photos of your gardens, your chapels, your candles, your table spread with a feast day dinner.

Perhaps you have an industrial kitchen, buy your food at Sam’s Club and haven’t had a butcher block table in 50 years. Not to worry. Photograph your icons and your books. Document your community as it prays or goes for walks or enjoys recreation. (As we know from Paweł Pawlikowski and Paolo Sorrentino, cassocks and habits are very cinematic.) Tag these photographs with a hashtag like #monklife or #nunlife. Slowly but surely, you will start to develop a following. The Benedictine Monks of Meath, Ireland, who run a wonderful Instagram, have over 900 followers. That may not sound like a lot when many middle schoolers have thousands, but it is a solid start.

In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, a hip men’s store sells “Incense of the West,” which smells suspiciously like church incense. Perhaps that store could be selling your incense instead

Finally, if you belong to an order that supports itself through handicraft or food production, you should market your wares under the hipster umbrella. Los Angeles’s Ace Hotel, the popular hipster hotel chain, is ornamented with handmade leather knickknacks and woolen blankets available for purchase at a hefty price. Maybe those blankets could be woven by your community? In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, a hip men’s store sells “Incense of the West,” which smells suspiciously like church incense. Perhaps that store could be selling your incense instead? Write to hipster boutiques and high-end urban specialty food shops and see if they will stock your products. Your community will make some money, but more important, it will garner interest and curiosity.

A notable American example of monastic engagement can be found in Spencer, Mass., where the Cistercians at St. Joseph Abbey, worried about the costs of running their community, recently started brewing the first Trappist beer in the United States. So many fans were clamoring to visit the abbey and tour the brewery that this past summer the brewery opened its doors to the general public for one day.

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Of course, the compatibility of Catholic and hipster visions of authenticity breaks down at a certain point. The Catholic Church, by definition, runs counter to the ideas of exclusivity that hipsterdom associates with authenticity. The church is for everyone. Nonetheless, in tapping into the current hipster lifestyle craze, you have a chance to share what a truly authentic life looks like: a life grounded in God.

Before you go all-in, however, a word of caution. To introduce Instagram or Snapchat into your community could threaten your own attention span. Smartphones and social media might distract the mind from prayer and contemplation. If you are a cloistered community, employing social media or engaging the world through mindfulness presents an implicit threat to your cloistered lifestyle and your vocation. You are no doubt well aware of these threats.

But as St. Augustine writes in De Doctrina Christiana: “We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say that the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue.” I am not advocating packing smartphones in your cassocks and habits. I am suggesting that you wade into the stream with care. For at the moment, the world needs your wisdom and your model of the good life almost as much as it needs your prayers.

Lisa Weber
1 week ago

It sounds to me like "hipster" is little different from "hippie" of the 1960's and 70's. I think the search for the "authentic" is part of being young and sorting out what is good and a foundation for a meaningful life. Monasteries have a place in that search.

Monasteries will always appeal to only a small part of the population because celibacy is not very attractive as a life choice. I think celibacy is more often an accident of one's circumstances and personality than it is a choice.

The more important question than how to bolster dwindling vocations is how to make clear to young Catholics that the Church and what it offers have value in the lives of ordinary people. If the Church can do that, it will have little need to worry about vocations.

Brother Aidan
1 week ago

Hello! You might enjoy the Facebook page from Saint John's Abbey. Yes we make candles. Yes we wear habits and chant. Yes we do icons (and pottery, and woodworking, and farming/theater/teaching/sculpting/priesting/hiking/biking/skiing), and yes you can see evidence for all that...in pictures, no less. But maybe more important you can meet some of the 2,600+ people who follow our thread, some of the 120+ monks who live/work/pray here, and some of the countless predecessors who have sought Christ above all things. Cheers!

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