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books on benedictine spirituality
29 may 2002
I bought Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way Of Living by John Mcquiston II on impulse. I'm looking for ways to bring my life into better balance, I have always been fascinated with the idea of monastic life, and the title of this book appealed to me.
At first, I was disappointed in this book. It is a modern interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, the result of the author's attempt to to 'free the underlying methods and principles of the rule from their original context and terminology to make them relevant to me.' The idea of God has been translated into something akin to 'the profound mystery of which we are all part' and the language used throughout is inclusive. The book includes similarly interpreted 'meditations' from the Book of Common Prayer that speak very strongly to me, and I come back to them again and again.
Because I knew it was one man's interpretation, I felt I wasn't getting the whole story. As a result, I next bought the Rule itself, and purchased further books with the view of getting insight from people with a more direct approach. Be warned: a more direct approach means religious! Reading McQuiston, I somehow forgot that the Rule not only emerged from Catholicism, it is centered around it!
Next I turned to Living With Contradiction: An Introduction To Benedictine Spirituality, written by Esther De Waal, a layperson with a fascination for Benedictine and Celtic spirituality; and Wisdom Distilled From The Daily: Living The Rule Of St. Benedict Today, written by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun.
Maybe you'll like these books better than I did. Neither one is as rigorous (or even straightforward) as I had hoped. Both seem to feel that they need to draw Benedictine lessons out of unrelated objects; I was hoping for a book that would draw Benedictine lessons out of the Rule. Both seem as concerned with being 'literary' as much as they are with talking about their subject. There are a few insights here, but many of the lessons drawn by these authors did not resonate with me at all.
Somehow, both of these books teetered, for me, between a worshipful awe of Benedict himself, and a strong desire to popularize their practice. I consider his rule to be useful, wise, and practical, but I'm not inclined to refer to him in reverential tones as 'this man'; and while I want to learn from others' experience living the Rule (or their thoughts upon years of pondering it), I'm already interested in the subject--I don't need to be convinced that this way of life has value.
Next was Benedict's Way: An Ancient Monk's Insights For A Balanced Life by layperson Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan. Another disappointment, though perhaps it comes closer to what I wanted than did the other two.
This one is arranged according to concepts drawn from the rule and approaches the reader as if he or she were doing a retreat or study, with questions and a prayer at the end of each section. These concepts don't map directly to the sections of the Rule, and some of the sections seemed to me to be a bit thin. Little anecdotes can be insightful in a larger context, but unless you are very skilled, this is a weak approach to illuminating a concept that is central to a life practice. And the authors have an unfortunate habit of quoting songs from the 70s as part of their chapters' introductory matter.
Each of these books received high customer ratings on Amazon (and you should go read them), so clearly the problem is that none of these were the book I wanted to read on the subject. Taken together all three books have given me much to think about, but I can't help feeling that one, more focused volume would have given me the same, and much more.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about western monastic life or Benedictine spirituality, my current best advice is to study the Rule itself, perhaps supplementing it with Always We Begin Again if you have trouble with the religious/non-modern viewpoint of the original.