Abba Give Me a Word: a book review

Visitors to the Egyptian and Palestinian wilderness in the fourth century, would ask the elder monks for ‘a word.’ The words given them, flowed out of the prayer and spiritual lives of the Desert Fathers. These words were collected into anthologies of sayings and circulated, allowing wider (and later) audiences to receive their ‘pearls of wisdom’ (introduction, xiv). These ‘words’ were echoes of the Word and reflected the prayer life, communal wisdom and understanding of scripture that came to us through the desert.

Enzo Bianchi is the founder of the ecumenical monastic Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II). He is prior of this community and has published books on the spiritual life which have been translated into several different languages (Goodreads lists 30 separate entries for him, mostly not English).  In Echoes of the Word: A New King of Monk on the Meaning of Life, Bianchi draws inspiration from the collections of ‘words’ of the desert saints.  This too is a collection of words on various aspects of the spiritual life. Bianchi writes:

In these pages, then, I have sought to let myself be guided by the biblical and patrisitic tradition that has preceded and formed me in responding to the requests of those who continue to ask me, with sincerity and passion for “a reason for my hope” (see 1 Pet. 3:15). In this nonlinear but always directed journey, the reader will at times find him- or herself returning to terrain already traveled, but each time a different perspective is revealed,the point of view changes, a different choice is made at the crossroads. (Introduction, xv).

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who writes the forward to this collection, says of Bianchi’s book, “I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s really alive. And it makes me want to go deeper–to tap into the same living water from which this abba drinks” (x). I had a similar experience reading through these ‘words’ Each of these 45 meditations consist of 3-5 pages, making this book appropriate for supplemental devotional reading.  I will not do Bianchi the disservice of trying to summarize the full contents of his book here, but allow me to share several insights that emerged for me as I mulled over his words:

  1. Bianchi describes the experience of the desert as a place where God speaks (as to the Israelites or Elijah). But this is liminal space–a places between places. We are not meant to settle in the desert.  Where my spiritual life has felt desolate, and I felt like ‘deserting,’ the challenge for me is to keep walking and trusting that God has a place for me. This is a poignant word for me right now, as I feel like I am at a stuck place.
  2. Several ‘words’ circle around the theme of vigilance, attention, listening, remembrance.  The spiritual life is about listening. It is about watching and waiting.  It is about cultivating attentiveness.  When I think of seasons where I’ve been adrift–spiritually, relationally, emotionally–it is times where I have not paid attention to God, to others and myself. Bianchi’s words exhort me to cultivate awareness and to listen well.
  3. Prayer is of vital importance.  This is basic Christian truth and Bianchi devotes a significant portion of this book to describing the inner dynamics of prayer.  Bianchi emphasizes God’s alerity (otherness) as much as he does God’s closeness. Yes, God is omnipresent and available to us, but the posture of listening in prayer (and in life) means that we are cultivating responsiveness to something outside ourselves. This is different than mere mindfulness, or the popular pantheism in some of the new spiritualities.  Prayer honors God’s otherness and so allows for the possibility of real and true relationship with the King of the universe.
  4. Our spiritial life has a direct real world impact on our relationships and communities.  In his first word, Bianchi quotes Maximus the Confessor, “Our divinization takes place when the divine love comes to dwell within us, to the point where we forgive our enemies as Christ did on the cross.  When is it you become God? When you are able like Christ on the cross, to say, ‘Father, forgive them,’ or even, ‘ Father, I give my life for them'” In later chapters, Bianchi describes loving enemies, humility, self-knowledge, solitude, community. Each of these are aspects of our communal life.  Our spiritual life is meant to transform all of life.
  5. Our experience of the spiritual life is bounded by limitations in the here and now: illness, old age, death.  This is part of what it means to be human. Communally we share in each other’s weakness. Theologically we have hope, even as we grown under our earthly tents.

This is a helpful collection of words. I find some ‘words’ more poignant than others, but do not doubt that if I inhabited a different spiritual season, other words would reveal their depths to me. This is a book to be read and savored and then re-read later. I plan to return to certain chapters later (i.e. I loved his summaries of the spiritual life, asceticism and Lectio Divina). Bianchi also does a great job of synthesizing patristic and monastic wisdom and applying it to today’s world. I warmly commend this book to anyone who seeks to deepen their spiritual growth. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

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