Benedictine Spirituality For Regular People: a book review

Benedict of Nursia is honored as the patron saint of Western monasticism. His Rule has given shape to the communal life of the monasteries that bear his name, but his influence goes far beyond the Benedictine order. The rhythms of prayer and work in community are staples of monastic spirituality and Benedict’s rule is the impetus for much of that. But what wisdom does Benedict’s Rule offer to ordinary folk–people with jobs and families who do not feel called to the monastic life? Quite a bit actually.

Brother Benet Tvedten has written How to Be a Monastic And Not Leave Your Day Job to help us regular people appropriate the gifts of monasticism and Benedict’s Rule. Written primarily as a guide for those wishing to become oblates, this book explores the history of Benedictine spirituality, the values it imparts for daily life and the requirements for oblates–those who wish to formalize their commitment to the Benedictine way by associating with a monastery. While those considering becoming oblates (literally, ‘offering oneself up’) will get the most out of this book, all who have come to appreciate Benedictine spirituality and wish to incorporate its insights will find food for thought here.

Tvedten begins his book by giving a brief overview of Benedict and Benedictine spirituality. Benedict did not write his rule in a vacuum. He incorporated the wisdom of the monastic communities before him, even appropriating The Rule of the Master, a rule written by an anonymous Italian abbot,  as the framework for the book we’ve come to know as The Rule of St. Benedict. While the former was used by Benedict, Tvedten observes a noticeable shift in tone, “The Master’s Rule is indeed harsh and burdensome. The crotchety old abbot does not have much confidence in his monks, and is constantly suspicious of them”(24).  Benedict’s rule on the other hand is written for beginners (15) and so that ‘the strong and the weak may live side by side’ (26). This  means that the Rule of Benedict is not simply for those who have taken heroic vows and are spiritually strong but has wisdom for those starting their spiritual quest and wishing to grow in their faith.

The values of Benedictine life which are gifts to the whole church include: rhythms of prayer and work, humility,  concern for peace and justice and hospitality.  Tvedten explores these, offering commentary on the rule and examples from the lives of oblates he knows. His commentary on the rule emphasizes how the Benedictine way represents a whole different way of being in the world. However, he occasionally he offers an explanatory note which makes Benedict  more palatable to our ears (i.e. Benedict’s prohibition on laughter is explained as a prohibition on mockery and buffoonery).

His final section explores the  calling of oblates, their commitment to the rule and to the values of conversion (turning from your former way) and stability (commitment to a particular monastery), guidelines for oblates and the value they bring to the wider monastic community, the church and the world.

New to this edition (the book was originally published in 2006) is a new preface and afterward where Tvedten expands his reflection on the Benedictine way to include the New Monastic movement (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, et al.) and other appropriations of Benedictine wisdom in our all too secular world. A list of recommended readings gives those interested in Benedictine Spirituality resources to go deeper into the themes which Tvedten sketches here.

I am not a Benedictine Oblate but I have a deep respect for the Benedictines. My own journey with Benedictine Spirituality includes my discovery of the Christian pracitice of Hospitality (through my reading of books by Christine Pohl, Daniel Homan, OSB and others), my encounter with Benedictine spirituality (through authors like Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Ester DeWaal) and several journeys I’ve taken through the Rule. I am not at the place where I would formalize my commitment to the Benedictine way, but I am grateful for the myriad of ways the Benedictines have challenged my thinking and way of being in the world. Tvedten’s book and the Rule challenge me to be more intentional about community, hospitality and prayer. These are values I hold dear and am inspired by the Benedictine Community. I give this book four stars and recommend it for anyone interested in exploring the gifts the Benedictines offer for us regular folk.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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.

Prayer for Ordinary Time (second week after Pentecost)

We worship and we wonder. . .

 

We worship and we wonder

why the God of love would

deem to pour His mercy on us.

We recount our weeks and recoil

at how often our pettiness,

unlove, and immorality

have revealed themselves.

We know we do not deserve such love.

 

We worship and we wonder

how an hour a week makes

much difference in our lives.

We stand and strain to sing songs too high for us,

we listen as the sermons too long for us,

We keep the feast  with bread and wine (juice)

far too little for us.

 

We worship and we wonder

and wonders of wonders it is enough.

God’s mercy comes for us anew

and we are changed (if not instantly

incrementally).

We eat and, wonder of wonders,

we are filled.

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Litany

Last Mother’s Day I wrote a litany acknowledging the pain sometimes felt on that day. The prayer has had a number of recent hits on my blog and some requests to use it in worship. I’ve linked it below. Feel free to use this for worship (or just join me in praying it) and amend it in whatever way is appropriate. If I wrote it today I would add a couple of lines to lift up mothers I know who are struggling.

Mother's Day Litany.

Answering the Contemplative Call: a book review

In many ways I’m a failed mystic. I am too extroverted to not feel threatened by silence and solitude. I’m too undisciplined to make contemplative prayer a daily routine. Even my other spiritual-routines (i.e. Bible reading, intercessory prayer, book reviews, etc.) are things that I feel I need to vary fairly often because I get bored and listless with mundane practices. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a better pray-er and have depth in my spiritual life; I want to know God better and be filled up with the Spirit’s presence. I know dailiness is the way to do it, but I tend to try on different spiritual practices the way my kids try on temporary tattoos.

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman

Carl McColman has written a book for people like me, who feel the call to the contemplative life but have had too many false starts to really make a go of it.  In Answering the Contemplative Callhe invites his readers into a life of prayer shaped by the Christian mystics. He does occasionally refer to other faith traditions and religious mystics, but in the main, remains Christocentric in his mystical theology.  His pages are littered with references to everyone from the Desert Fathers, Meister Eckhart, The Spanish Carmelites (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), English Mystics (Julian of Norwich, the Cloud of Unknowing author, Walter Hilton), Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc. C.S. Lewis is also referenced a lot because McColman is a Christian and quoting Lewis is what we Christians do.

The book is organized into three sections. In the first section, McColman discusses what it means to recognize ‘the contemplative call.’  In part two he gives advice on how we can prepare for the journey into contemplative prayer. In the last section he paints a picture of what first steps into contemplation may look like.

There is a lot about this book that I really liked. For one thing, I appreciate where McColman roots his insights in the Christian tradition. He delves into the major Christian texts of contemplative theology and commends them to readers. He doesn’t pretend that he says all that needs to be said about mysticism but points his readers towards some pretty great books. Yet he is also not afraid to criticize these masters for their sexism, neo-platonism, or bad theology. A deep experience of God does not entail that an author gets everything right and McColman calls people out.

Also I appreciated the balance he brings. While he explores briefly both the cataphatic and apophatic tradition, he doesn’t pit them against each other or  try to suggest one is more holy or deeper than the other. He commends both. Similarly he also commends the practice of corporate worship to wanna-be-mystics who want to simply get away from people and spend time by their introverted selves in contemplation. McColman rightly points out that that will not do because for Christians  to thrive and grow, private practice is not enough. We are formed in community. A third way where I find McColman balanced in his presentation, is he is careful to guard us from where mysticism can become escapism. By grounding his practice of contemplation in Christ, he keeps the focus of this work Incarnational and warns against spiritualities which attempt to escape embodiment.

I also loved that his description of mysticism/contemplation includes both kenosis and theosis. Kenosis refers in theology to Christ’s self-emptying (as described in Philippians 2). McColman suggests that contemplation similarly calls us to empty ourselves so that we may have a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. Theosis describes the movement in the spiritual life where we are gradually transformed into the image of God and partake in his likeness. This is where contemplation (and the Christian life in general) ought to lead. McColman recognizes this. Kenosis and Theosis describe two important aspects of the Spiritual life. They are not in opposition but dovetail nicely.

All this being said, I remain suspicious of aspects of contemplative practice. I have no real qualms against centering prayer, silence and solitude, but my faith has been shaped by the Evangelical commitment to the Bible and the life of Christ. Where these practices (centering prayer et al.i) may be fruitful, I am wary of where they have been divorced from historic commitments of Christian belief. McColman is a religious ecumenist (as I hope am I) but I wonder if his mystical vision, in places, has lost some of it’s particular Christian shape and character (though clearly not all).

This is an introductory text so McColman does not try to say everything that needs to be said.  I did find that this book made me hunger to enter deeper into my practice of prayer and I appreciated a number of insights I found here.  I give it four out five stars.

I recieved this book for purpose of review via Speakeasy and have given you my honest opinions. Thank you for listening to me.

 

 

Getting Ready to Burn (in a good way): a book review

Albert Haase, OFM’s Catching Fire,  Becoming Flame begins with this inscription of this story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him,”Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Catching Fire Becoming Flame: A Guide For Spiritual Transformation by Albert Haase, OFM

Like this Desert Saying, Haase’s new book is not primarily a book about rules or spiritual disciplines. This is a book about  spiritual transformation. At a retreat that Haase led at a retirement home, an elderly nun told him a secret, “God l-o-n-g-s  to turn you into a saint! If you respond to God’s yearning you will be amazed at what happens(3).”  This is a book which helps us respond to God’s yearning and allow him to set our hearts ablaze.

The book consists of thirty-three short chapters divided into five sections. The first two sections layout a conceptual framework while the final three sections deal with practical concerns.  In part one, “the Spark from God,” Haase introduces readers to the spiritual life and the process of transformation.  He talks here about the nature of spiritual awakening, the stages of the spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) and how to deal with imperfections, sins and bad habits. He also talks about the necessity of CPR–Community, Prayer, and Repentance– if we are to grow and change in our relationship with God.  In”Kindling,”  Haase’s second section, he explores  in depth various spiritual concepts. Haase exhorts his readers to be secure in the love of God, to be attentive to prayer, have an attitude of Gratitude, cultivate Spiritual senses to see where God is at work, be aware of our ‘false self’ and the way suffering functions in the Spiritual life.

In the third section, “Catching Fire” Haase presents various prayer methods: the examen, meditation and contemplation, lectio divina, Imaginative prayer (Ignatian meditation), wonder-ing with creation, praying the stations of the Cross, and praying the Lord’s prayer.  Haase is able to draw together the insights of various writers on prayer and the Spiritual life and summarize their insights.

The fourth section, “Fanning the Flame,”  describes Spiritual Discernment.  As in the other sections, Haase articulates insights from a number of writers on the Spiritual life, but he uses his own story of listening to God’s call to missions in China as an example of how discernment works (Haase was a missionary to China for twelve years before being forced to leave).  He talks here about the nature of discernment, decision making and the experience of dryness, darkness and depression even when you feel like you are answering God’s call on your life. Haase recommends ongoing Spiritual direction, appropriate self-care and creating a personal rule of life to help us counteract the confusion that comes as we try to walk in the ways of God.

In his final section, “Becoming All Flame,”  Haase speaks about dynamic commitments necessary for living out the Spiritual life. Some of these are ongoing practices (i.e. the Examination of the Conscience, Sabbath Rest, Silence and Solitude, Pilgrimage, etc.). Other commitments are ongoing orientations (i.e. surrender and abandonment, forgiveness, Revealing everything to God).

Haase writes as a Franciscan preacher, retreat-leader and spiritual director. His writing inhabits Franciscan spirituality but he also draws on the insights of Benedictines and Jesuits and occasionally, Evangelical protestants.  The insights and practices Haase commends are instructive for any who seek to deepen their faith and be transformed into the image of Christ.  What I especially liked about this book was how down-to-earth it was.

While I certainly found things I disagree with in these pages (i.e.  I’m suspicious of some aspects of centering prayer), I admire the depth and insights of Haase’s writing and happily recommend this book. I give it ★★★★★ and think that Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate this book. Why not become all flame?

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

[Note: Paraclete Press also has a DVD Curriculum available based on this book]

Prayers for Easter Week 3 (John 21)

Like Peter at the Sea of Tiberias

we meet the resurrected Lord

and then return to

the-way-things-used-to-be.

We mend our nets and go fishing.

Yes we saw him, but is life really changed?

And anyway a man has to work!

 

For Peter: A fruitless night closes

when at a word the nets are full.

Jesus there  and wants to breakfast with him.

 

Three times he asked,

“Do you love me?”

Peter says yes, and is

trice commissioned to

Feed Christ’s sheep.

 

The three times weren’t lost on Peter–

who had three times denied Christ before his cross.

But in that moment, Peter knows he’s fully accepted and loved

that Jesus is not done with him yet

and there is more for him to do.

 

Resurrected Lord: 

We do love you, help our un-love!

Transform our lives from the-way-we-were

to your true image-bearers. 

Commission us to your service

despite our poor catch records.

Thank you that you are not finished

with

us

yet.