How Saint Benedict Can Help Us Grow Spiritually

The Benedictine Vows and a Life of Integrity, Commitment, and Mindfulness

How can the wisdom of the monastery help folks like you and me — who are not monks or nuns — to grow spiritually? To answer that question, we can begin by looking at The Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule of Saint Benedict remains one of the great classics of western spirituality, even though it was written […]

Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986)

During the third year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian, I was assigned to read Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, OCSO. Like so much monastic writing, this book is a gently written, meditative exploration of “what monks do” — the habits and exercises that not only shape the monastic day, but that over time help to form the character of a monk. For those of us who are not called to the life of the cloister, reading about such topics as the monastic cell and monastic decorum can be inspiring in a kind of analogical sense: in other words, by discovering “what makes monks tick,” we are invited to reflect on how we can fully live a contemplative spiritual life, even outside of the walls of a cloister. Of course, many topics in this book (silence, prayer, lectio divina) can be directly applied to the circumstances of any reader, monastic or not.

A nice bonus in this book are M. Bernarda Seferovich, O.Cist.’s lovely black and white illustrations on the cover and interspersed throughout the text.

The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012)

While I am not wild about the word “experience” in the subtitle, there is much to love about this book by a former Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Sun at Midnight is a brief but eloquent statement about how important mystical spirituality is to a living, healthy faith. Dom Bernardo clearly understands that the heart of mysticism is mystery, and that for Christians the supreme doorway into the mystery of God is the life of Christ. As a monk, he also recognizes, and beautifully affirms, how the essential elements of the monastic charism — work and prayer, the daily office, the sense of solitude and compunction that shapes the cloistered life — all invite the monk deeper in the mystery of Christ. Those of us who are not monks can still find much inspiration in these pages, for a lively mysticism is necessary not only for a healthy monasticism, but indeed for a healthy faith community at large.

Here Cistercian monk, author, and centering prayer practitioner Father William Meninger, OCSO is interviewed by an evangelical pastor, Pete Scazzero of New Life Fellowship, on the topic of “communion with God.” At the beginning Scazzero offers a rather lengthy “history lesson” of the divisions within Christianity, but ends with a lovely ecumenical note: “rather than judge traditions different from us, we want to learn from them.” Amen! (If you want to skip over the introduction, start at about the 5:00 mark). Fr. William begins with a wonderful definition of what a monk is, and many delights ensue.

Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006)

I was assigned to read this book in the final year of my five-year formation as a Lay Cistercian. So it’s not what I would call a “beginner’s” book on Cistercian spirituality, but rather a rich and nuanced study of the spirituality of this particular tradition, drawing deeply and heavily from the writings of the Cistercian fathers, authors like Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Aelred of Rievaulx. Its theme — “Passing from Self to God” — represents a core principle of Cistercian spirituality: that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are called to restore the Divine likeness within us, by turning away from the many attachments of the self to the luminous simplicity of intimacy with God. The book stands on its own as a spiritual masterpiece, but for those seeking insight into the Cistercian tradition, it also functions as a window into that medieval world.

Five years ago today the movie Of Gods and Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie went on to become a blockbuster hit in France and is justifiably considered a modern classic. James Martin, SJ called it “the greatest film I’ve ever seen on faith.” I agree with him. I’ve seen this movie many times and I still can’t get through the trailer without crying. Watch the trailer and then go buy the movie (yes, buy it; you’ll want to watch it more than once).

Here’s a treat I found on Youtube: a video interview of Trappist monk and author Michael Casey, apparently recorded in 2007 for a Flemish or possibly Dutch program (I’m not sure where it was originally broadcast). The interviewer is a Flemish priest, Erik Galle. The opening credits and voiceover of the video are in Dutch, and the interview features Dutch subtitles, but the interviewer and of course Casey himself speak English.

The Road to Eternal Life (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO, who was Thomas Merton’s last secretary, praised Michael Casey for writing “with clarity and grace.” Nowhere is this more evident than when he writes about The Rule of Saint Benedict, and in The Road to Eternal Life he offers an in-depth commentary of arguably the most important part of the Rule, the prologue. Moving through the prologue’s fifty verses one at a time, Casey provides a rich commentary, seasoned by his long life not only as a monk but a writer and novice master. The commentary on verse 40, where Casey reflects on how Cartesian dualism has crippled the way meditation is understood in the west, is alone worth the price of the book. If you want a beautifully-written explication of a how a sixth-century monastic document remains spiritually vital and relevant in our time, look no further than this book.

Here’s the second of two videos featuring Trappist monk Fr. Matthew Kelty reminiscing about his friend and brother monk, Thomas Merton.

Here’s the cover of my forthcoming book on Lay Cistercian spirituality. I hope you like it as much as I do (I can brag on it since I’m not the designer). The photograph depicts a 12th century Cistercian Church at L’abbaye du Thoronet in the Provence region of France. Please let me know what you think of the cover, and share this image with all your friends.

If you’d like to pre-order the book, click on this link: Befriending Silence.

2015 is not only the centennial of Thomas Merton, but of one of his brother monks, Matthew Kelty, who died in 2011 at the age of 95. Kelty was not as well known as Merton of course, but he wrote several books, including Flute Solo about his years living the life of a hermit. He was Merton’s confessor for a number of years. In this video, the first of two filmed in 2003, we hear Fr. Matthew reminisce about his brother monk.

Here is a gem. This short video of Thomas Merton was filmed on December 10, 1968 in Bangkok, part of a lecture he gave on monasticism, communism, and interfaith dialogue. He talks about the Dalai Lama, argues that Marxism is a pale counterfeit of consecrated religious life, and makes a plea for Catholics to be open to learning from Buddhism and other faiths. Even this short snippet is rich with insight. What is profoundly moving about this video is that it was filmed the day Merton died — literally within an hour or so of this lecture, he was electrocuted in a freak accident. At the end he tells the audience that he won’t entertain questions until the evening, a promise he would not be able to keep. (N.B.: this particular video was uploaded by someone who created cards and subtitles in Portuguese, but don’t let that stop you from watching it, Merton himself speaks in English).

Here’s a lovely interview with Father James Conner, OCSO, a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Fr. James has been a Trappist monk since 1949 and worked closely with Thomas Merton for many years, studying with Merton and serving with him as Merton’s assistant novice master. He talks about dealing with loss, the spirituality of surrender, how everyone is on a sacred journey, and his understanding of what constitutes “real prayer.”

My Forthcoming Book on Cistercian Spirituality

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 […]