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. 

Naming the Son: a book review

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is well known for his cookbooks including Twelve Months of Monastery Cookbooks.  But he isn’t just a monastery chef, he is a Benedictine monk well versed in the Rule’s rhythm of work and prayer and the Great Tradition. In Christ the Merciful he skillfully weaves biblical, liturgical, monastic, ecclesiastical  and patristic sources together, providing forty-seven mediations on the many names of Jesus (not all are names, but titles, or modes of addressing and understanding Christ’s significance).  Brother Victor contends, “When we meditate on his names, Christ inspires us to revise our expectations of him. He invites us to move beyond our self-centered ideas of who we think he should be and focus instead on his ever-changing, ever-renewed presence in our lives” (introduction, ix).

christ-the-mercifulThese names for Christ are derived both from biblical source material and centuries of Christian reflection on who Christ is for us. While Br. Victor is firmly rooted in his own Benedictine tradition he draws generously on the insights of the ancient church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Christ’s names are organized into five sections. In Part I, Brother Victor reflects on ‘Christ in Images, Names and Symbols’ Here, Br. Victor explores Christ’s divine and messianic titles—what it means to call Christ, God, the prophets’ fulfillment, the Messiah, the Incarnate One, Our Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, Lord, Son of the Living God, Good Shepherd, Door and Keeper of the Gate. Part II  explores Christ in the gospel tradition, tracing the life of Jesus from Messianic hope and his Bethlehem birth, through His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Part III describes some of the titles of Christ in the Byzantine (Eastern) tradition such as Christ the Pantakrator, And Christ the Philanthropos (Lover of Mankind). Part IV delves into the place of Christ in the Monastic tradition, (including the Jesus prayer and the role of Christ in a monk’s daily life and devotion). Part V explores Christ in the Human Family (Jesus the child of Mary and Joseph and his relationship to us, the poor, the angels and saints, and the Wisdom of God). At the end of the book Br. Victor has three appendixes exploring the prayers and mystical traditions of Syria, Russia and Romania, respectively.

Each of the meditations in this volume begins with relevant scripture passages, several pages of reflections from Br. Victor, and they usually close with a poetic prayer from a saint, a liturgy, or other writings from the Church’s rich theological tradition. Given the breadth of images and names and the thoughtful coherence of whole book, means that it is impossible to read through these meditations without enlarging your understanding of God’s grandeur revealed in Christ. Christians of all stripes (Catholic, Orthodox or low-roving Protestants) will find these reflections Christ centered and worshipful.

This isn’t to say that Br. Victor is exhaustive in his reflections on Christ’s many names. He doesn’t reflect on a couple of my favorite of Christ’s biblical titles, “Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners (Luke 7:34), Great Physician (Luke 5:31), or Christ our Brother (Hebrews 2:11). His discussion of Jesus as Lord is apolitical, emphasizing the spiritual meaning but not Christ’s challenge to empire (as N.T. Wright reminds us, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not). These omissions do not diminish Br. Victor’s fine prose. Christ is bigger than any of our reflections and all of us see now in part.

Because of the length of this book (forty-seven chapters) and its Christological focus, this would be a wonderful book to read throughout the season of Lent. Though it could really be read at anytime, by those who are interested in contemplating the Christ and  live their life in Him. I give this four stars

Note: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

God Where Are You? a book review

In the face of mass tragedy and terror in a post 9/11 world, we wonder where God is. But this is not a new question. Significant figures throughout history have struggled to see where God’s hand was at work and what it means to trust him. These include the prophets and patriarchs.

Bianchi is the founder and prior of the ecumenical monastic, Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II).  He is a perceptive spiritual writer ( I have previously read and highly recommend his Echoes of the Word). In God Where Are You? Practical Answers to Spiritual QuestionsEncho explores several Old Testament saints. His treatment of each of these patriarchs and prophets yield fruitful insights into the spiritual life:

  • Abraham was called to go to the land that God would show him. Abraham’s faith in God in going is a model for us. Especially because Abraham is given a promise that will not be fulfilled in his lifetime (i.e. possession of the land, become a great nation, etc.). Even in his reception of a promised offspring, Isaac, he models for us a spirit of relinquishment of all he holds dear. So the father of our faith (and the Jewish faith) faces circumstances and ordeals that make faith in God difficult.
  • Jacob was the deceiver who cheated his brother out of his brother out of his birthright and inheritance. Despite his scoundrel nature, he was a child of promise.  Two events changed Jacobs life forever. The first was his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth while he was on lam. The second happened when he returns home many years later and wrestles with God at the ford of Jabbok. The second event was the culmination of a lifetime of struggling with God, but it is through the struggling that Jacob (and we) discover that a new life is possible.
  • Moses is a man who saw God’s glory and is physically transformed by the time he spends with God on the mountain. He is privileged  to hear God–YHWH, I AM Who I AM–and he is commissioned to lead God’s people out of slavery to the promised land. He is commssioned by God, but also struggles with God, interceding for the people when they stand under His judgment. IT is through Moses’ struggle with God, he learns to think of others as better than himself. He leads the Israelites to the cusp of the promised land, though he himself would not enter.
  • Elijah fearful and depressed longing to die, meets God in the silence on Mount Horeb.
  • Isaiah‘s call underscores how our encounters with God call us to be obedient servants of His word.

Ultimately these ancient encounters reveal that life with God has never been easy but that God has revealed himself to us in the midst of his people (129) and in the person of Jesus Christ and in those who live in him (133). In Jesus we find we are not just on our search for God, but God is searching for us.

Bianchi’s prose is simple and unadorned, but he speaks deep things. He is well read in Jewish and Christian spirituality and synthesizes their wisdom. I didn’t agree with his interpretation at ever turn. But I was challenged and think his reputation as a Christian writer is justified (Rowan Williams writes the forward and calls Bianchi one of the most significant Christian voices in Europe). Currently, I would give this book four stars, but I already want to read it again, so it may grow on me. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of this review.