It was probably with Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, that the modern spirituality book was born. People began to realize how much they could experience from this kind of reading, and today the number of spiritual books dwarfs (fifty to one) the number published in Merton’s early days as a monk.
It also used to be that if you wanted to learn about monastic spirituality, your only real choice was to go to a monastery. Today you can do a lot from home—especially with guides like Benedictine abbot Jerome Kodell. His new book, Life Lessons from the Monastery, offers monastic wisdom that speaks to any ordinary Christian. It’s like spending time with a monk—only in a book.
Life Lessons begins with a beautiful reflection on God’s loving presence. It’s as if Abbot Jerome wants to get our full attention and say: "Every Christian life must begin right here!" Quoting from Scripture and from Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical on love, he finds fresh ways to tell us about God’s promises of love, grace, and forgiveness, despite our best efforts to miss them.
God loves us "completely, unconditionally, in spite of anything we might do," writes the abbot, and his astonishing love has been there from the beginning. Catching this vision of God, he says, "the prophet Micah had his breath taken away" and cried out: "Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin" and who "delights . . . in clemency?" (Micah 7:18).
"Here I Am!" I found myself wanting simply to rest with those thoughts for a while, but Abbot Jerome’s short, easy-to-digest reflections prodded me to keep reading. He acknowledges that although God’s love and presence surround us, the Christian life is not easy.
We may reel under the realities of war and terrorism, be battered by financial concerns, family tragedy, personal sickness, or disability. The worst part of feeling besieged is feeling alone: I’ve got to bear this by myself. Parents may feel it at times in raising their children, or retired people when they see their savings evaporate, or those who are out of work or who are lying in a sickbed or languishing in a nursing home. Here I am, alone. We may be bent over with the feeling that nobody can help us, and maybe that nobody cares.
God doesn’t promise to solve all our problems and make everything perfect in answer to our prayers. Rather, in the midst of our distress, he says: "Here I am. I am with you. Here is my Son. He loves you so much he died for you." Abbot Jerome is convinced that if we can simply get this point—God is right there with us—then all the other aspects of the Christian life will make a lot more sense.
Of Peace and Prayer. Often throughout Life Lessons from the Monastery, Abbot Jerome contrasts superficial ways of understanding with more perceptive ones. For example, he explains that the peace spoken of in Scripture is different from what we might call tranquility.
When people visit monasteries, he says, they often remark on the peace they feel there. The monks may wonder if those same visitors can see the hard work involved in keeping a monastery going. Monks, after all, have many jobs and much work to do, too. But the difference is in the quality and kind of peace.
The peace of Christ is not the same as a superficial peace, which might be slow and tranquil on the surface but mask disorder underneath. The peace of Christ depends on the divine presence and is not something that can be manipulated or manufactured. But if it is present, it can be experienced no matter how busy the environment. And it will be present where people are seeking God, monastery or not.
Abbot Jerome offers helpful lessons for people who tend to start and stop spiritual practices over and over. For me, these lessons centered around prayer. I took heart from his assurance that what matters most is "to set aside time for prayer and to do the best we can. The Holy Spirit will take care of the rest." After all, he points out, "a baby is born with the equipment necessary for seeing and does not need instructions." Likewise, "we have the ability to pray but we don’t know how. God will show us how to pray, as we pray." In other words, just do it and don’t worry so much about skill and technique.
If you are at all like me, this encouragement will still be tough to follow. We insist on earning, or at least laboring for, God’s presence and find it hard to believe that "anything so incredibly important can be simple." The good news? We can start small—even just two minutes a day, as long as it’s every day. "God needs only this tiny opening, just a crevice in the heart, to begin making a saint."
Serious about God. Reading through Life Lessons from the Monastery, I began to feel that Abbot Jerome was taking St. Benedict’s teaching down off the shelves and graciously offering it to all of us who live on the outside. Monastic principles "are adaptable in various ways to all who are seeking God," he explains. And then, he reflects on the Divine Office (daily prayer), obedience, and trials in a way that highlights their relevance and accessibility for every Christian:
All three test whether we are willing, not just once but on a daily basis, to take our hands off the handlebars and let God be in charge.
As the abbot develops this theme—in beautiful chapters on surrender, freedom, and fear of the Lord—you realize that what you might have considered a weekend retreat is turning into a more serious apprenticeship. For monk and lay person alike, it’s an exciting and rewarding journey. n
Jon M. Sweeney lives in Vermont. He is the author of many books, including The St. Francis Prayer Book and Light in the Dark Ages: The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi (both from Paraclete Press).Click here to purchase "Life Lessons from the Monastery."