“Spirituality: An Art of Living: A Monk’s Alphabet of Spiritual Practices” by Benoit Standaert, OSB. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota, 2018). 409 pp., $39.95.
If you’ve ever wanted to sit down and pick the mind of a monk — a man or woman steeped in the church’s monastic tradition stretching back to the desert fathers and mothers — then this is the book for you.
Perhaps a better subtitle for it would be “A Sampling of Monastic Wisdom” because there is plenty of wisdom to be had in this sizable hardback, complete with a ribbon marker.
From Abba to Zero, the 99 entries here explore many topics that are spiritual, philosophical, poetic and also inclusive. While most entries are from the Christian tradition, there also are topics from Judaism (Tsimtsum), Islam (Dhikr) and Taoism (WuWei.)
The reader can begin anywhere, and each entry suggests other possible references within the book that may be of further interest. Highlights include the entry on breathing: “Many wise words and short prayer forms can be based on the rhythm of our breath. They support this rhythm and, at the same time, are carried by it. I breathe in, I am. I breathe out, I give thanks. Mindfully and in wonder I do one and experience the other.”
Another gem is the entry on chastity, to which we are all invited: “If love is a source that never runs dry, it is thanks to chastity. Chastity keeps the heart alert, not to avoid love in fear, but to approach love with greater diffidence. You can never be too chaste in love, you can never overdo love when you have a chaste attitude. Having both go hand in hand is an art and, like every art, requires time and patience.”
One of the strengths here is that these ideas are not just about living in a monastery but about our real lives, as is especially evident in considering rituals: “We should … be able quietly to pay attention to small, mindful rituals in our ordinary, daily life. Tucking a child into bed and entrusting it to the loneliness of night does not happen without an elementary ritual. From this we can learn how ritual can also give form to other ways of parting and confiding another to the unknown, like giving a kiss, reading a poem or a story, drawing a small cross on the forehead, or leaving a nightlight on. These are all symbols of closeness at the moment of distancing ourselves from the other.”
In the company of Father Benoit Standaert, an articulate Benedictine monk from Belgium, we are led to see all as sacrament: “Everything is sacrament because ‘sacrament’ is nothing but a practice in which God and human being encounter each other … Sacraments are practices that work a transformation. So you may consider this whole book a treatise on sacraments. Transformation is a process. The goal is nothing less than sharing in the freedom of the Son, a playful dance in the glory of being children of God.”
Although inevitably some entries are better than others and there are some topics surprisingly missing, such as vocation and the earth and the environment, this volume is an invitation into many encounters with deep and tested holiness, as is clear in the epilogue: “In poverty and gratitude we breathe broadly and happily in solidarity with all that exists without pretense: a blade of grass, a sparrow, a child, a friend, a wisp of cloud in the sky, and a distant star. Death may knock at the door, it no longer scares us. A greater awe has already consumed that fear. To die is to give up one’s spirit, to surrender one’s breath completely — in a kiss, why not? … The ‘light of Light’ that visited us, and that ensured that we walked as ‘light in Light,’ shall lead us after death in what cannot be anything else but a festival of light.”
What a grace to have such a helpful accompaniment in that journey.
Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace” and “Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses,” and taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University for many years.