Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

Monks, Moguls & Managers: a book review

There was a time when the church mined the business shelf for wisdom on managing ministries, leadership and growing your church. In some circles, this is still the rage. August Turak appears to be attempting to do the reverse. Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks recounts Turak’s experience of working alongside the monks at the Mepkin monastery. For seventeen years, what he has learned from the brothers’ example, and  that has  helped him be a better, more successful CEO.  Of course, the monks are not Turak’s only source of spiritual insight. He studied Zen Buddhism with some guy in West Virginia and apparently has watched the Devil wears Prada a lot.  His association with Mepkin came through a connection he made  the Self Knowledge Symposium (a group of college students he leads, where he shares  his spiritual insights).  He went for a weekend retreat after a student of his had been spending his time volunteering there. That began his long relationship with the monks.

So what is it exactly that Turak has learned from the monks? The content of this book is not significantly different from any other business self-help book. Turak attributes the monk’s success to: their commitment to quality, their commitment to community, their selfless service, loyalty, the opportunity their life together makes for personal transformation, integrity and their commitment to a higher purpose.  Because Turak is writing for the widest possible audience, his appropriation of the monk’s insights are applied far beyond their particular Christian, monastic commitment.  He wants to help business people translate monastic style commitment to their organizations.

What makes this book a fun read is Turak’s blend of monastery stories with stories of his own business success and challenges. His spiritual commitments (and personal commitments to running the SKS) has often meant that he has had to forgo  opportunities. However these commitments served to pave the way to the particular shape of his success.  Hearing his story is part of the fun and of course he makes you wish you knew a bunch of Trappist monks.  The Trappist’s Benedictine heritage ensures their commitment to the sacredness of work, as one component of the spiritual life.  So it seems natural that Turak can appropriate their insights and experience to the workplace.

I enjoyed this book but I am not sure what I will take from it.  Secularizing the insights from the monastery means reducing the spiritual insights and religious commitments of the monks into something useful for everyone. There is something good about this, but it is also part of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ lowest-common-denominator impulse. The monks have a vocation. So do business people. They can learn from each other, but their distinctive call is their greatest gift to the world.  I think Turak gets this, but when he talks about getting business’s to commit to their organization’s purpose, this will always be a different order of commitment to me than a Trappists commitment to God, community and prayer. The former may be worthwhile, but is temporal. the Godward life connects us to the Transcendent.  I would have difficulty committing to my current organization (in the business world) with the same tenacity that monks devote themselves to God. I don’t think I should, even while I agree that commitment to a common purpose will lead to greater corporate success (in general).

I give this book four stars and think that if you like quasi-spiritual business books, you likely will love this one. I liked it. 😉

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