My Forthcoming Book on Cistercian Spirituality

Abbot Francis Michael of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by James Behrens, OCSO

Abbot Francis Michael of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by James Behrens, OCSO

Dear friends, I’m excited to announce the title and subject of my forthcoming book.

In July 2013 I began a conversation with an editor associated with Ave Maria Press about writing a book grounded in Cistercian spirituality. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the spirituality of Cistercian monks and nuns — including mystics like Thomas Merton, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Beatrice of Nazareth. The contemplative prayer movement in Christianity today has its roots at least partially in the Cistercian tradition. Some people are more familiar with the name “Trappist” — Trappists are one branch of the Cistercian family.

The conversation moved slowly, not only because of the normal demands of my schedule, but because of my daughter Rhiannon’s needs — the summer and fall of 2013 she was in and out of the hospital, culminating in her entering in-home hospice in January 2014. Thankfully, the editor never gave up on me, and in a series of phone conversations and email exchanges, the book gradually began to take shape. 

Since I’m a Lay Cistercian, and not a monk, the book is written for all of us “ordinary” folks who probably will never be monks or nuns (I say “probably” because it’s always possible that some of my readers may go on to enter the cloister, but I’m assuming most readers won’t). For that matter, chances are most people who read this book would never become Lay Cistercians either, although hopefully some will. So the main purpose of this book is to introduce my readers to a beautiful but largely hidden spirituality, which has been forged and formed for over 900 years inside the cloistered world of the monastery. But this is not a history book — it’s written so that it can speak to the needs and concerns and aspirations of people from all walks of life — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, even Christian and non-Christian.

Does Cistercian spirituality have something to offer to everyone?

I believe it does. So that is the driving idea behind this book.

In the Cistercian world, the term used to describe the character of Cistercian spirituality is “Cistercian Charism” — a lovely idea, since “charism” literally means “gift.” With this in mind, it seemed natural to make this key theme of gift central to my book.

But what gift(s) does Cistercian spirituality offer, not just to monks and nuns or Lay Cistercians, but to the world at large? Several thoughts kept coming up:

  • The monastics of the Cistercian tradition live in a way that is wholly ordered to contemplation.
  • Along those lines, a key characteristic of Cistercian spirituality is a life immersed in silence.
  • Cistercians value community and the “glue” that holds community together, compassion.
  • The monks and nuns gather multiple times each day to chant the Divine Office, a beautiful and ancient form of prayer.
  • The tradition values stability and love of the land — qualities embedded in the earthy virtue of humility.

But how to organize this book? The answer came from a quotation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux that I found in an essay written by one of my favorite Trappist writers, Michael Casey. He pointed out that in Bernard’s treatise On the Steps of Humility and Pride, the great medieval mystic and theologian makes a comment about the “three steps of truth”:

These are the three steps of truth. We ascend the first by striving to be humble, the second by compassion, the third in the ecstasy of contemplation. In the first, Truth is discovered to be severe; in the second, holy; in the third, pure. Reason leads to the first, in which we think about ourselves. Affection leads to the second, in which we think about others. Purity leads to the third, in which we are lifted up to see what is out of sight. (source: Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, page 116)

That was my eureka moment. In this short passage, I found the entire sweep and splendor of Cistercian spirituality summarized in three logical steps. We begin in a place of self-interest, but are invited to know ourselves in truth and simplicity: the step of humility. From there we are called to love others, to form and be formed in community, through compassion; and as we grow in the love of self and neighbor, we are invited still higher, in mystical contemplation of the highest love of all, the love of God.

Does this sound like mainstream Christian spirituality to you? It should — for Cistercian spirituality is really just a lovely, simple, silent path we may follow, one way to more faithfully follow Christ.

The Abbey Church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by Haven Sweet

The Abbey Church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by Haven Sweet

As the book’s concept and outline began to take shape, I received a tremendous blessing from the monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (the monastery where I am a Lay Cistercian). I was granted permission to use the Abbey library. So I spent a number of days last summer writing and researching in the library; I was there during the day while the monks were at work, so I was generally all alone, enjoying the silence and trying to stay focussed on which books and periodicals would be most helpful for my project (there were so many to choose from!).

When Rhiannon died in August 2014, naturally the book was put on hold for several weeks. But when I returned to it, the writing proved to be a meaningful way for me to walk through my grief. One of the many lessons I’ve learned from the monks over the years is not to be afraid of death; and while losing my daughter was painful beyond measure, it also was a profound experience of deepening my faith and finding gratitude in the midst of my mourning. All of that seemed to be honored and soothed by my striving to complete the book.

I submitted the manuscript to my editor on November 21, 2014 — only three weeks late! — and immediately she and I began an intensive back-and-forth of editing, polishing, and rewriting. I shared the book with a dozen readers, both lay and monastic, and received tremendous feedback.

Fast forward to the present: the book is still being edited — we’re going through the last round of copy-editing, and then it will go into layout and final proofreading — but it’s close enough to being finished that we have begun the process of contacting well-known authors to ask them to read the manuscript and possibly write a brief endorsement.

Currently the book is scheduled for publication in November 2015. That might change, of course, so don’t hold me to it. But barring some unforeseen circumstance, that’s the plan.

So what is the book’s title? Well, we’ve gone through a long process of determining what to call it. My editor and I, along with the marketing team at Ave Maria, bounced a number of ideas back and forth, but nothing grabbed us — or, at least, all of us. It wasn’t until the manuscript was complete, and folks were reading it, that inspiration finally hit in a way we could all say “yes.” So here it is:

Befriending Silence:
Discovering the Gifts
of Cistercian Spirituality

Like the publication date, this could still change. But probably — hopefully — not.

I don’t have a cover design to show you yet — that’s still in production. The book hasn’t been assigned an ISBN yet or given its own page at Amazon, so I can’t provide you with a link for pre-orders. But if you haven’t done so already, please sign up for my email list. I’ll keep you informed about the book’s progress, including cover art and when it’s possible to place pre-orders.

Do you like the title? Please let me know. And thanks for reading my blog. I hope you’ll read Befriending Silence  when it comes out — I hope that it will bless you as much in reading it, as it has blessed me in writing it.

Update, March 28, 2015: Amazon.com is now accepting pre-orders of this book.
If you’d like to pre-order it, click here.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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8 thoughts on “My Forthcoming Book on Cistercian Spirituality

  1. I am so sorry about the death of your daughter.

    As someone who has just begun formation as a lay Franciscan, I am greatly looking forward to your book. I really enjoyed and learned so much from your first book about mysticism.

  2. I am very encouraged to hear and read about fellow Cistercian Laymen and Women – I am English, but live in Germany, and am a Cistercian Lay Oblate. I will be very interested to read Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence, when it is published, as I have followed the Cistercian Life for 10 years, and I have lived within the Cistercian Community off and on and even before that I followed the Benedictine Office book for many years…
    I have just been on holiday in Spain and managed to visit the Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus in the municipality of Aiguamúrcia, Catalonia, Spain, which is well worth visiting. And on returning to my home in Germany, I also visited Abbaye Notre Dame de Cîteaux in France, which is a wionderful place of worship.
    So I bless you all and look forward to the book being published.

  3. Yes, I believe this will be a good title and I look forward to reading the book. As a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) we also place a strong value on presence before God and with one another in silent prayer and the outworking of that prayer in a life of simplicity, humility, mercy and peace. It is good to have knowledge of friends who are seeking to live in the same direction toward God and neighbor. I hope someday we will have occasion to meet somewhere. Thanks as well for the fine quotation from Bernard of Clairvaux.

  4. Carl, you’re doing a great job and I believe this book should be translated and published in French. It would help the surgeon of lay cisterciens to grow in french Canada and Europe.

    • Thank you — and if you know of a French publisher that might be interested in producing a French language edition of the book, please direct them to contact Ave Maria Press (or give me the contact information and I’ll pass it on to my editor).