It’s time to begin to consider possible titles for Lenten Reading as mentioned in Chapter 48 of St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries: in these days of Lent they shall each receive a book from the library, which they shall read straight through from the beginning. Theses books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent. In the Western Church of St. Benedict’s day, the beginning of Lent meant the First Sunday of Lent since Ash Wednesday was not yet observed and would be an innovation of later centuries. At Holy Cross Abbey, the First Sunday of Lent remains the day we begin the Lenten Reading.
In this post I’ll focus on just three titles.
Crossing by Mark Barrett. Very often in the Retreat House, our guests will ask, “How can I bring some of this experience home? I know from my past retreats that I resolve to keep some kind of schedule of prayer or silence and I just can’t once I’m back home with my family or at work in the office.” As a partial response to that question, I started reading to the guests at the evening meal (among other books) Crossing: Recovering the Landscape of our Lives by Mark Barrett. This book is always guaranteed to elicit interest, several guests asking, “What’s the name of that book?”
Mark Barrett is a monk of the English Benedictine Congregation and wrote the book when he was in his forties and had been a monk for over twenty years. As he admits, he is neither a theologian nor an expert on spirituality but he teaches school and supervisor’s a dorm attached to his Abbey. Much better than an academic expert on Christian spirituality he lives a spiritual life and has the gift of writing well and clearly and with humor. He has structured his book according to the hours of the Divine Office: Vigils–facing the margins of experience (and consciousness); Lauds–making a new beginning; Midday Prayer–the crisis of disillusionment; Vespers–pulling together the past day; Compline–facing the end. However, each chapter is not a liturgical exposition but associating the experience of that office with the real life experiences of men and women, some who happen to be monks and nuns. Barrett’s presupposition is that the monastic life is an archetype, if you will (and my words, not his) of the human journey into the spiritual life. If you’re looking for references to Monastic traditions, practices and authors, you’ll find them aplenty here. You’ll also find references to other disciplines from Zen through the Alexander Technique, as well as universal human experiences of searching used book shops, walking the labyrinth and what we look for in family photos. If you want to explore the links between the innate potential of the round of your life and the round of the monastic day, consider a slow reading of Crossing.
In The Heart of the Desert by John Chryssavgis. The apothegmata or cryptic sayings of the desert fathers have offered inspiring reading for many since Thomas Merton published his version in his short book, Wisdom of the Desert. Since then, we have enjoyed new translations and serious studies of that primitive monastic tradition. Deacon John Chryssavgis, like Mark Barrett, believes that monasticism has something to say to all Christians and not just monks and nuns. The title of his book is significant: In the Heart of the Desert, the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Conscientiously he includes the only four Mothers preserved by the Sayings, typical of his inclusive perspective. His deep reading of their sayings does not leave their contributions stranded on the shores of elitism or ascetical athletics, but locates their support in our lives in the midst of our own “desert” passage through the spiritual life. As he writes early on in the book, not only will we pass through a spiritual desert–whether we live in Arizona or in the suburbs surrounded by green lawns–but we must pass through the desert if we’re on the way to the living God and not some idol of God tailored to our own comfort.
In his book we meet humble and vulnerable exponents of the monastic life, human not only in their limitations but in their joyful responsiveness to God. These are people who have become transparent enough to let God work through their lives; even that transparency comes from God, not from their labors. Or, as the monastic tradition puts it: God works, man sweats.
To Believe In Jesus by Ruth Burrows. When I was a novice–perhaps in my first year, about thirty-seven years ago–I read a new book, Guidelines to Mystical Prayer, the first book, I believe, by the English Carmelite, Ruth Burrows. It was a refreshing revisit to classic Carmelite spirituality. Some years later I heard it dismissed as an inadequate interpretation of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila but the criticism did not diminish the common sense, feet-on-the ground contribution of this author.
To Believe In Jesus challenges our human tendency to distance ourselves from the heart of Gospel discipleship by conventionalizing or stylizing the Gospel message into a reduction we can handle more comfortably as a checklist of observances. We can hide behind well developed theologies and mistake concepts for actual living; or we become pre-occupied with “what level of prayer” we have achieved rather than developing a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Either diversion side steps the question , who is Jesus in my life?
One could say this is a short book for busy people, provided you don’t mean by that, a book you can zip through and–well–check off your list of spiritual exercises accomplished. It’s a short book that merits a slow reading, casting it’s scrutiny on how I actually operate. And isn’t that appropriate reading for Lent?