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Spring Books

Traveling the world for a spiritual ideal


By William Claassen
Forest of Peace, 279 pages, $13.95


At least since the publication of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, the romance of the monastery has grown increasingly strong in the popular imagination. Many have felt drawn to the purity, the austerity, the beauty of the monastic life or to the related ideals of contemplative prayer and meditation. Monastery guesthouses are often booked a year in advance, centering prayer and Zen meditation have become common daily disciplines, and bookshelves are full of selections that give instruction, inspiration or perhaps a touch of spiritual voyeurism.

Offerings as diverse as Marsha Sinetar’s Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk and Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake as well as many musical recordings of chants and sacred songs from various religions have allowed us to have some vicarious taste of the monastic lifestyle or to touch the place inside us where the archetype of the monk resonates. In an increasingly troubled world, the image of a life devoted solely to God, a life of silence and simplicity within a concentrated spiritual family has great appeal.

William Claassen’s spiritual journey has certainly included a strong attraction to monasticism. But rather than merely reading about it or choosing one monastery with which to affiliate, he embarked on an adventure in which he would visit more than 40 communities representing a variety of religious traditions in 11 countries.

In undertaking this project Claassen was aware of himself in three roles simultaneously, functioning as pilgrim, traveler and journalist. Throughout most of the book he weaves these three strands together beautifully in a way that makes for pleasurable and fascinating reading. He acknowledges the times when he is moved by a certain prayer or ceremony, and with equal candor he admits his glaring social mistakes and his moments of irritation. The end result is a kind of travelogue in which the personality of the author is revealed in a touchingly honest way without detracting from his accounts of the lives and practices and beliefs of the monks and nuns he visits.

I liked the arrangement of the chapters, which seems to be based on an assumption about what monastic and religious systems would be most familiar to readers from the West. Thus, he begins with the Cistercian Abbeys de la Trappe and de Citeaux in France and then proceeds through Benedictine monasteries in Spain and Italy, then to the Greek Orthodox monks of Mount Athos and to the Copts in Egypt. Then he leaves the Christian tradition and proceeds to a Sufi training center in Turkey, a Tendai Buddhist center and a Rinzai Zen Temple in Japan, two varieties of Buddhist wats in Thailand, and Jain and Hindu and Ramakrishna communities in India. This sequence allows the information presented in each chapter to be integrated in the mind of the reader, as some cross-referencing takes place and similarities and differences between particular monasteries and traditions are highlighted.

Claassen has a remarkable sturdiness and a penchant for thoroughness. His ability to travel so widely, to move easily between cultures and geographies, to commit himself to such a broad endeavor and to organize his material thoughtfully is impressive. His descriptions are detailed, and he tries to report many of his conversations in dialogue form, aiming, I suppose, for accuracy and realism. And he ices the cake of his comprehensiveness by including at the end of his book an index, a reading list and a glossary.

The book is aptly named, both because of the essential personal aloneness of anyone committed to the monastic life anywhere, and also because of Claassen’s separateness as he moved through each of these spiritual families. Most of the time he was welcomed, included, treated cordially, and whenever possible he participated in the meditations and the rituals of each group. But always, inevitably, he was an outsider, an observer, a gatherer of impressions and facts. He remained at each monastery for no more than a few days and then moved on, alone.

And this, I think, is a question that such a book poses: How do we, as hyper-mobile post-modern people, reconcile the fact of our insatiable curiosity and our saturated everyday lives with our deep longing to belong to something permanent, ancient and worthy of our whole selves? How do we live with the ache of being ourselves, utterly alone with the Alone, while at the same time knowing that we are doing so along with the whole communion of living beings making its way through this life? Those who have been called to be monks, to consecrated lives, set apart and devoted to a certain spiritual ideal, become for us both a koan, a spiritual riddle and an icon. There is, for me, a warm comfort in the knowledge that, throughout the world, all the time, individual men and women are giving themselves over to the work of meditation and prayer, praise and intercession, tying together heaven and earth, and containing faithfully within themselves the paradoxical realities of aloneness and union.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist living in Downeast, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002