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Summer Books

On the open road, all sorts of monks search for God

By Wayne Teasdale
New World Library, 224 pages, $22.95


During my seven years in the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Georgia it was not uncommon to find myself engaged in a conversation with the other monks about “just what constitutes a monk?” I was intrigued by the wide range of interpretations the monks embodied.

I felt at home with the more generous variations of their interpretations. Some of the monks found something of themselves in a world shared by many artists, writers and common folk. They sensed something monastic shared well beyond the confines of a cloistered, Catholic and traditional expression of monastic life. Others were deeply convinced that being a monk had very definite parameters, boundaries so defining that the conversation quickly reached a dead end. Enough said.

Wayne Teasdale’s A Monk in the World was a delight, like an open road. The book came to me at just the right time in my life. In fact, it was on the car seat next to me as I drove through the South after I left Conyers, Ga., and moved here to Louisiana. I read it as I settled into a new place.

I am more convinced than ever that the call to be a monk can be heard and responded to anywhere and anytime. “The essence of being a monk is a search, not the external form of looking like a monk,” Teasdale writes. “The search for God transcends the monastic state; it’s what we should all be doing.”

This book is Teasdale’s testament to his life as a monk. He now lives in an apartment in Chicago. He is familiar with the more contemporary themes of monasticism as these have found a fresh and much-needed application to the world through the writings of Thomas Keating, Raimon Panikkar, Thomas Merton, Ammachi, Bede Griffiths and others. What I find to be a singular joy in A Monk in the World is how Teasdale brings the wisdom, compassion and love usually associated with a life behind walls or high on a hill down to a life lived in a busy city like Chicago.

Teasdale offers the reader a generous share of his own life’s joys and struggles. The chapter on his suffering through a terrible time with cancer I found particularly moving. It was a dark night of the soul for him but a time in when he later knew that God was drawing him closer to the meaning of life that is love. He also writes of the homeless he has come to know over the years in Chicago and how these men and women have as well shown him something of God.

A sense of the eternal is never far from Teasdale’s vision of life. The more he has given himself to the monastic disciplines of contemplation, a simple lifestyle and what I would call an obedience (or listening) to the Spirit, the more the eternal has offered its presence through the ordinary events and people of his life. The pages of the book brim and shine with awareness.

There is an expansiveness to his vision. He devotes large portions of the book to what he calls “interspirituality.” Teasdale is aware of the increasingly pluralistic age in which we live and that this new interreligious age makes demands on us all. While painfully cognizant of the devastating events of Sept. 11 and similar terrorist attacks in much of the world, he looks to all religious traditions as sources of renewal through which the Spirit will lead people. It is obvious that he has appropriated to himself a wealth from the religious traditions of humanity. God has been, for Teasdale, an active and faithful conversationalist. He has heard God in a lot of places and through a lot of people.

Early in the book he quotes Thomas Keating: “Silence is God’s language, and it is a very difficult language to learn.” Teasdale seems to favor this sense of divine silence and writes, “The Divine Reality itself is actually silence or stillness.” Well, this is something I have struggled with for a long time. There may be something to it, but I tend to lean in the direction of “in the Beginning was the Word.” God is some sort of language, a meta-type of communication. I am grateful that Teasdale shares more than silence.

I am heartened that he calls us all through his words to better grasp the nature of who we truly are but which can so easily be forgotten in our fast-paced culture.

“Universal mysticism belongs to us all,” he writes. “We are now more firmly in the Interspiritual Age; its development is irreversible. ... It will become more deeply imbedded in culture, society and the future of civilization. This is the challenge of my life. I find it both fascinating and exciting, but also at times a bit confusing, since there is so much to process and integrate. ... I am committed to the interspiritual life and I welcome it completely.”

Little did I know the invitation and challenge that lay in the pages next to me in my car on that long ride from an old life to a new one. Are there all sorts of monks out here? There are. I am sure there are. Maybe I never really left the monastery at all. Perhaps I have only just arrived.

Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002