Essential Reading

Article excerpt

Modern Monastic Spirituality

The last twenty-five years have seen an explosion (though "mountainslide" may be a more apposite image) in scholarly publications on the history, theology, and spirituality of early Christian monasticism, the period roughly from Saint Antony the Great (d. 356) to Saint Benedict (d. 550). Benedictine monasticism had a profound impact on medieval England and subsequently on The Book of Common Prayer.

But monasticism retains much more than an antiquarian interest. The last twenty-five years have also witnessed a renewed and widespread interest in monastic practices and spirituality. Some of this no doubt is a result of Vatican II and the '60s and, even more, modern and postmodern spiritual ache and emptiness, the search for meaning amid the ruins of rampant industrialization, materialism, and solipsism. Many monastic orders (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), monasteries, monks and nuns are now actively reaching out to non-monastics, those clergy and laypersons seeking a deeper spiritual life.

One very good result of the renewed interest of recent scholarship in early Christian monasticism is that virtually all early monastic texts are now available in English translation.' At the same time a number of monks, clergy, scholars, and laypersons have written excellent books on monastic spirituality intended for a more general audience. These books, individually and cumulatively, bear witness that monastic practice, spirituality, and way of life do indeed have much to offer today. Below is a select and annotated bibliography of those books that I have found most helpful and enjoyable.2 Henri Nouwen comments in The Genesee Diary that "maybe my writing about prayer kept me from a prayerful life." Reading about prayer-that is, the spiritual life-can also be a way of avoiding that life. If you decide to read any of these books, read them formationally rather than informationally; that is, read them at a time set aside for slow, thoughtful, reflective spiritual reading (monastic lectio). If a word, sentence, or passage hits home, stop reading; pray; sit with the silence where God is; then go on, a minute, hour, or day later, after whatever touched you has had a chance to soak in. Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

These two books show popular theology and spirituality at its best, well grounded in the traditions of the Church and working outward from those traditions to reach a modern audience. Bondi, a patristics scholar, uses her love and knowledge of early monasticism to offer thoughtful meditations on topics such as "Love," "Humility," and "God" in To Love as God Loves and an extended reflection on prayer in To Pray and to Love.

Maria Boulding, O.S.B. (ed.), A Touch of God: Eight Monastic Journeys (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede's, 1982).

This book, intended for lay readers, gathers together eight autobiographical essays by monks and nuns, who "share something of their inner life." As such, it personalizes monasticism and the monastic life.

Joan Chittister, O.S.B., The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Saint Benedict Today (San Francisco: Harper, 1991).

I used the second of these volumes in leading a parish reading group a number of years ago and I can still remember how deeply it touched the other members of the group, all laypersons. Chittister, a popular and prolific writer, leavens her spiritual insights with warm references to the life she and her sisters lead in the monastery. The first volume is a more formal commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict; Chittister unabashedly declares that "Benedictine spirituality is the spirituality of the twentyfirst century. …