Monasticism

New and Noteworthy

Love Provokes
From challenging apartheid in South Africa to speaking out for the rights and dignity of all worldwide, Desmond Tutu has fearlessly proclaimed love and justice. God Is Not a Christian and Other Provocationscollects his most prophetic speeches and writings in one volume, with introductions that provide historical context. HarperOne

Risking Change
In Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, pastors Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken share honestly the ups and downs of redirecting their congregation from a focus on attendance numbers and religious consumerism to spiritual and community transformation. Foreword by Dallas Willard. IVP Books

Quality Conversations
The book Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues compiles thoughtful, wide-ranging interviews from the PBS show of the same name that aired from 2007 to April 2010. Explore ideas that matter, from poetry to politics; includes new commentary by Moyers. The New Press

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Tilting at Windmills?

The Teresian Carmelites of Millbury, Massachusetts, soon hope to add a wind farm to their life of prayer and service. But these contemplatives’ six hours of prayer a day hadn’t been focused on alternative energy sources. “We didn’t go looking for this,” monastery prior Brother Dennis Wyrzykowski told Sojourners. “The heart of our community is to help the poor. The land just showed up.”

In 2005, the monastery purchased 99 acres. Afterward, the monks were told that studies by the University of Massachusetts Renewable Energy Research Laboratory indicated that the land’s elevation allowed for very strong winds. RERL considered the land to be one of the best locations for wind energy in the state.

But when the land seller, American Tower Corporation, heard the news—and the potential value of the land—it reneged on the sale. After two years of litigation, the Carmelites finally were able to take possession of the land.

Currently awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval, the proposed wind farm will generate revenue primarily through the sale of renewable energy credits that will then be tithed to serve poor communities in the area around Worcester, Massachusetts.

—Kaitlin Barker

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Why Bother?

Writer Kathleen Norris admits that the spiritual concept of acedia is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. “It’s sort of untranslatable,” she says, with a clutch of English words—including torpor, apathy, indifference, sloth, despair, depression—approximating, but not capturing the fullness of the word as used by early Christian monastics. “Acedia is more than just restlessness, indifference, or despair,” Norris explains. “It goes down to the Greek root, absence of care. For me, the essence of it is that inability to care.”

In her forthcoming book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead Books), Norris explores acedia through monastic literature, contemporary culture, and reflection on her marriage, including the debilitating illness and death of her husband, David Dwyer. As with her previous books The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and Dakota, Norris’ far-ranging intellectual curiosity, gentle humor, and honesty about her own doubts and missteps make it a welcoming read for people of diverse spiritual experience.

Acedia was, and is, almost a given for those living a monastic life—the commitment to place, work, and daily rhythms of prayer inevitably is dogged by periods of restlessness, malaise, even hopelessness. But Norris believes acedia is utterly relevant for the rest of us too. “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude,” she writes, “anyone who remains married ‘for better or worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.” And she suspects that the individual experience of acedia is mirrored and multiplied in our cultural and political life. “The more I read about it in monastic literature and medieval theology, the more I realized this isn’t just a personal problem, this is a societal problem,” says Norris.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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A Carnival for Christ

East Tennessee swelters in the summer. Everywhere there are mosquitoes and sunburns and the constant clamor of air conditioning. But in a particular valley last June, a new sound joined the cacophony.

At a farm just south of Knoxville, radical sermons mingled with the sounds of avant-garde music, a “bartering barn” overflowed with the trading of folks interested in creating an alternative (cash-free) economy, and the sound of celebration—of a raucous family reunion—filled the fields.

The reunion was called PAPA Festival (People Against Poverty and Apathy), and the family consisted largely of “New Monastics,” a movement of young people gravitating toward intentional, communal living in America’s inner cities.

It is an extended family of people such as Leah Eads, of Evansville, Ind., a soft-spoken young woman who finds herself frustrated with the disconnect between the things Jesus preached and the way mainstream churches in Evansville choose to follow.

“Big, rich, white, suburban,” she says of many churches in her hometown. “[They have] the best intentions, don’t want to be greedy, but somehow [are] pretty isolated from the poor and real needs. It’s easier to give a check in the offering plate, which ultimately goes to pay the electricity and the air conditioning for the building and the huge staff, and doesn’t do a lot for the poor in your own community, much less the rest of the world.”

Leah shades her face from the pounding sun and smiles at the concept of New Monasticism being, in fact, new. “I think there’s always a pocket of this,” she says, referring to the New Monastic emphasis on unplugging from societal structures while simultaneously trying to change them. “My parents brought me up this way so I’m thrilled to see so many other people. At the same time it still feels like a very small group.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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The Great Silence

Europeans were muting their cell phones and pocketing their iPod earbuds in fall 2005 to sit in Zen-ish quiet for the premier of Philip Gröning’s three-hour documentary Into Great Silence. With almost no dialogue, Silence reveals the life of monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery hidden in the French Alps, where they have kept their Carthusian monastic rule since 1084 when they were founded by St. Bruno.

Gröning spent several months living in the monastery. The film has no soundtrack—only footsteps, echoes, and Gregorian chants. There are no voice-overs or commentaries. One monk murmurs to a cat. One monk—blind and deaf—speaks briefly about his joy. There is the sound of icicles melting and the rumble of fire in a wood stove.

For almost a thousand years, the Carthusian monastics at Grande Chartreuse have searched for God in solitude, practicing “the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart, which allows God to enter by all path and access,” as it is written in the Statutes. Their lives are an experiment with God’s declaration in Isaiah: “Listen to me in silence” (41:1) and with Jesus, who “rose long before daybreak and went out alone into the wilderness to pray” (Mark 1:35). They order their lives around radical availability to the present moment, like Samuel awake in the night listening for Eli’s call (1 Samuel 3).

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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The Grim Sweeper

Making caskets is fine. But who's going to clean up this mess? Inside their light, fragrant workshop, a handful of monks are hard at work. They're planing. They're ripping. They're joining, gluing, sanding, and finishing coffins, caskets, and urns made to order, then fitting them with shiny metal handles and discrete brass plates that say "Trappist Caskets, New Melleray Abbey."

Death is a way of life for these Iowan monks. They do everything from logging the trees on their extensive timberland to lining the caskets with white muslin. "There's nothing pretentious or false here," says general manager Sam Mulgrew. "It's straightforward—just heavy wood and slow, loving workmanship."

The Trappists (1-888-433-6934; trappistcaskets.com) offer reasonable prices and provide an alternative to the mass-produced caskets that dominate the market. The caskets are accepted by all U.S. funeral homes and cemeteries. They can be shipped on time anywhere in the country. Trappist Caskets are also suitable as low coffee tables until the time comes for their final use.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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An Unexpected Merton

It comes as a surprise to discover that in the Orthodox Church only three saints are called theologians: St. John the Theologian, author of the fourth gospel; St. Gregory Nazianzus the Theologian, and St. Simeon the New Theologian. While this does not mean there are no other theologians in the calendar of saints—in fact there are many—the sparing use of the term reminds us that a theologian is far more than a scholar. A theologian is someone able to express in words the actual knowledge and experience of God. A theologian is not merely an expert but a disciple.

It is in the non-scholastic sense of the word that Lawrence Cunningham recognizes Thomas Merton as a theologian—not "a professional thinker in the service of ideas and not a person of systematic theological reflection, but someone who knows how to speak about God authentically."

Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision, finds that what has drawn so many to Merton's books is that Merton "wrote everything out of a deeply centered life of faith expressed in prayer," writing not with an "idea" of God but an experience of God that "shines through his writing." His books are not simply about God but bear witness to God.

One might add that there is something of the same quality in Cunningham's book. Of the many people who have written studies of Merton, few have understood Merton so well or been better able to describe his work with such economy and insight. For those who have begun reading Merton and who know the outlines of his life story, Monastic Vision takes the reader to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. I found it hard to put down.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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Just a Cloister Walk

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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Living Water in the Desert

"We seek the human desert where there is lacking the substance of Life...In such places God's grace awaits us. It is in such places that we are asked to live the adventure of God's fellowship, and sent by the church, to give witness." - From "On the Road to Where?" a pamphlet by Brother Peter Raphael

In the desert of Algeria Charles de Foucauld met the Lord. While at a Trappist monastery in the dry, barren land of Syria he became aware of the vast human desert of the poor and he knew his life must be lived with them and for them. "I love our Lord," he said, "and I cannot bear to lead a life different from the one he led....Like Jesus of Nazareth: charity toward the people who live here...and humility in my way of life, a humble, poor, hidden home." Finally, in 1916, while he was in the desert of Tamanrasset, living with nomads, he was assassinated.

He left behind a vision for life among the poor that Rene Voillaume brought to fruition in the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus, and the related Little Brothers of the Gospel, in 1933, and the Little Sisters of Jesus in 1939. The purpose of the order is to live among the poor as Jesus did, and to be the friend of everyone, the universal brother and sister, the "littlest one." Their life is simple. They own no property, but choose to live in tenements in New York City, shanty towns in Venezuela, villages in India. They hold menial jobs: cleaning rooms in a hotel, waiting on tables in a restaurant, welding in a factory, driving a delivery truck.

The silence of the desert profoundly impressed Foucauld and molded his life of prayer. He found prayer to be an opening of his own interior desert to the one who is the Living Water and his soul found life and refreshment to sustain him in his arduous calling.

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