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Abbey insights linked to life

By Paul Wilkes
Doubleday, 244 pages, $21


Monastic life is making a book-publishing comeback. We live in a time that prizes virtually everything monastic life teaches us to abhor: individualism, materialism, sensual gratification, speed and form above substance. Meanwhile, everyday pressures take their toll, wear us down, send us into that spiritual desert from which it can be difficult to exit. Our search for serenity and endless desire to embrace the divine, while sometimes buried, rests at the core of our soul. No wonder, then, when someone appears willing and able to direct us to a spiritual oasis we take up the offer.

There is not much new about monastic life -- and that’s the point. It is timeless while we are slaves to time. What is new is a willingness to recognize the need to slow down and rediscover some of Catholicism’s centuries-old spiritual lessons. They have been with us all along. Recently, a number of what I call “monastic evangelists” have arisen in our midst.

First there was the poet, Kathleen Norris, who, in The Cloister Walk, exposed us to her 10-year association with monastic life and her efforts to link the sacred and secular. Hers was an essay that gave us glimpses of monasticism’s rich inner rewards. Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister’s The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages connected the spirituality of monastic rule with the pressing needs of human family and wider planetary life. She showed us that Benedictine spirituality, focused on stewardship, community and relationships, is uniquely suited to respond to the needs of the modern world.

Two years ago, Trappist Abbot Francis Kline wrote Lovers of the Place: Monasticism Loose in the Church and showed us why monasticism’s contrary message deserves a wide hearing. Last year Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens, in his first book, Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk, offered us some simply beautiful essays that connected us anew to the monk and his monastic way of life.

Our latest evangelist is Paul Wilkes whose book Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life represents yet another attempt to connect the secular and sacred, life within the walls with life beyond the walls. In some ways it is a more complex book because the author purposefully attempts to connect us not only to monastic life but also to his own spiritual journey. Written from the viewpoint of a husband and father, the layperson may find it especially satisfying.

Those not familiar with this Catholic author will enjoy the discovery. He is among the nation’s finest writers on church matters. In 1991 he wrote a two-part New Yorker profile -- 34,000 words long! -- of Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland that depicted the prelate as an urbane musician-monk, a concert-pianist-turned-abbot and Vatican insider who but for a turn of history (the election of Pope John Paul II) might have reached the highest episcopal rank. Wilkes painted the picture of a generally humble, occasionally arrogant and always reflective archbishop who had been passed over by Rome as it promoted lighter-weight and more obedient men.

Wilkes, the inescapably Catholic author who enjoys wearing his Catholicism on his shirtsleeve, always brings intelligence and grace to the subject at hand. His ongoing frustration with the institutional church is often balanced with his appreciation for Catholicism’s spiritual and cultural treasures. Wilkes brings enthusiasm to work. Unashamedly he says he likes to write about Catholics.

In his book, Seven Habits of Successful Catholics, he wrote: “I find myself continually drawn to a certain kind of Catholic…. It might be an unaffected yet distinctive look in their eye, the way they speak, a certain presence they have or a natural goodness they seem to radiate. They have a certain moral vitality that is both palpable and appealing. And I can immediately sense that they seem to really enjoy being Catholic.”

Was Wilkes writing about himself?

In Beyond the Walls, Wilkes declares that his fascination with monastic life dates back to his adolescence and his early encounter with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who introduced a generation to monasticism. (Many years later Wilkes would co-write a PBS documentary on Merton.) Though Wilkes says he never heard “the call” to be a monk, he retained his love of monasteries through the years, often visiting them for monastic retreats. It occurred to him, he says, only after several visits to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery a few hours from his North Carolina home, that monasteries might hold special lessons for him as one who is in search of an authentic spirituality in the secular world.

Mepkin Abbey rests on land once owned by Henry and Clare Boothe Luce. The monks of Mepkin support themselves with the help of 35,000 hard-working Leghorn chickens that supply supermarkets with eggs and gardeners with what the monks call “Earth Healer,” their euphemism for chicken manure. Wilkes visited the community monthly, exploring it to deepen his own spiritual awareness and to use the experiences as a sounding board for further reflection on his life outside the walls. Through Wilkes’ visits the reader is introduced to the routines of monastic life, to the spiritual heritage of monasticism over the centuries, but most intimately to the soul of this husband, father and contemporary spiritual seeker.

Wilkes finds Mepkin both a strange and wondrous place. “It does not matter what hour of day or time of year I arrive, for the Trappists laugh at time, bending it to their resolute wills by obeying it precisely. They gather for prayer at 3:20, 5:30, 7:30 a.m., noon, 6:00 and 7:40 p.m.; meals and work periods begin and conclude at similarly uniform times. There is no other place in my life so comforting in its sameness.”

During each monthly visit Wilkes focuses on a particular aspect of monastic life: faith, detachment, prayer, chastity, community and mysticism among others. Each becomes a chapter in the book. Each chapter begins with a description of Wilkes’ arrival that month, his state of mind and general reception or lack of reception by the monks. The visits become stepping-stones to deeper spiritual exploration, with the author always attempting to take his monthly insights back to the world from which he came.

The effort to connect the two lives, Wilkes finds, is as difficult as it is necessary. No matter how rich the spiritual experience may have been, sustaining it out in the world seems virtually impossible. Yet seeds get planted, and transformation occurs. The author finds himself being drawn into deeper personal discernment. The book is most successful in portraying the process of that discernment.

Wilkes shares his aspirations but also is willing to share his failings. The effect is both disarming and oddly encouraging. We recognize our own shortcomings in Wilkes’ narrative. Monastic wisdom, meanwhile, shines forth throughout. The narrative unfolds as the educated Catholic professional, the husband and father, forced to face timeless questions of meaning and means, manages to uncover the pathways out of the desert.

Tom Fox is publisher of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000