Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers

Article excerpt

Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers. By Anselm Gruen. Translated by Peter Heinegg. New York: Crossroad, 1999. 126 pp. $14.95 (paper).

A friend who is a novice in an Episcopal religious order recently told me that she has no taste now for books of contemporary spirituality. The volume under review here will, I hope, change her mind. In it, Anselm Gruen, a German Benedictine monk, urges a "spirituality from below," that is, one that is grounded in reality and does not try to live up to false expectations and ideals, a spirituality that "begins with ourselves and our passions" (p. 18). Superficially, Gruen is still doing battle with the Roman Catholic "moral theology textbooks of the 1950s" (p. 118), a struggle that may seem irrelevant to Anglicans in 2000, but Gruen's engagement with what he considers an outmoded and deleterious spirituality has driven him back to the sources, to the early desert mothers and fathers and their total reliance on God in their cells. The result is a book that is at once both ancient and modern, and bracingly relevant.

Heaven Begins Within You is a translation of Der Himmel beginnt in dir: Das Wissen der Wustenvater fur heute (Freiberg im Breisgau: Herder, 1994) and reads very smoothly in the English translation by Peter Heinegg. Readers of monastic literature will spot relatively minor mistakes: "quietistic meditation" is a poor rendering of hesychia (p. 30); "Mother" is not a good translation for amma (pp. 22, 42), since it suggests that the female monastic was an abbess or priest; the monastery of the Ennaton near Alexandria becomes "Ennatu" (p. 85); and the Antirrhetikos of Evagrius of Pontus turns into Antirrhetikon (p. 79). But these are pimples, easily ignored when looking at the beauty of the whole. The book also lacks notes; in a popular volume, this is normally not a serious difficulty. The problem is compounded here, however, because the bibliography is completely inadequate: made up entirely of German sources, it gives no direction to the English-speaking reader who wishes to read further in early monastic sources.

Despite these deficiencies, small and large, this is still a wonderful book. Gruen's chief insight, perhaps, is to see early monastic writings as being mystagogical rather than moralistic; instead of insisting on correctness, they lead us into mystery, "into a world of love and compassion, of truth and freedom" (p. …

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