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Posted April 23, 2006

Book: An Unexciting Life: Reflections on Benedictine Spirituality
Author: Michael Casey
St. Bede’s Publications, Petersham, MA, 2005, pp.520

An Excerpt from the Foreword:

As the years pass, I have become aware that most of what I have written is part of an emerging synthesis. In my own mind, what I have done is like a large jigsaw puzzle in which, progressively, the separate pieces begin to cohere to form little islands which eventually connect. Unlike most practitioners I have not done the edges first. This omission means that the boundaries are always expanding — driven, as usual, both by requests from outside and by some inner urging of my own daimon.

This sense of everything fitting together became stronger when I reviewed various articles which have been brought together to fomr this volume. Although they were written in different inner and outer circumstances, I recognize that most of the issues that have engaged my attention are recurrent.

To those who live outside monasteries, monastic life can seem to be exotic, which it is, and interesting, which ideally it is not. Benedictine life is geared to opening up channels of communication with the spiritual world. This demands certain restrictions on sensate excitement and a willingness to lead a quiet life. A contemplative life doesn’t just happen. It presupposes years of active asceticism as well as a certain largeness of heart that permits a monk or nun to persevere in giving priority to interiority, at the expense of more tangible benefits and gratifications. It is surprising how challenging is such a life-style, especially if one is thinking in terms of forty or fifty years of it. Like a duck on a dam, it may seem smooth sailing on the surface, but underneath there is a lot of paddling going on.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Historical Identity

The Benedictine monk is not defined by the role accorded him by the society in which he lives. His primary loyalty is not to any function he may fulfill, but to the tradition in which he stands. In his act of profession he pledges himself not to work at any particular task, but to live in accordance with St. Benedict’s Rule, under the direction of his abbot. It is this freely-determined fidelity to a specific past which gives the individual monk an identity and which unites communities in singleness of purpose.

This allegiance to another age has the beneficent effect of offsetting the immediacy of claims made by the present. The beliefs, values and practices widely accepted in our own time can thus be evaluated by reference to a more remote age. Just as a traveler often returns from experience of other cultures with a heightened appreciation of what is specific to his own, so, an attempt to appropriate the values of another epoch can afford a more accurate standpoint for gauging current trends. A person devoid of historical sense often misreads his own situation.

A Benedictine in good standing with his own past is the heir of a particular spiritual tradition. Within this sub-culture there are beliefs and values which help the individual to shape for himself a philosophy of life which is at once proper to himself and his situation and distinctively “Benedictine.” It is a philosophy of life which is not learned only from books, but is communicated through sharing in a common life shaped by that tradition.

The most significant aspect of the Benedictine tradition is precisely its antiquity. It is a way of life based on the Gospels which is formulated in substantial independence of movements in Western society since the sixteenth century. The great asset that Benedictine spirituality has is its relative freedom from dehumanizing social ideologies which have prevailed over the last four hundred years. Almost no other strand of ecclesial life can give the lie to such recent errors so effectively as the tradition of life and thought called “Benedictine.”

How many of the more recent spiritual traditions within the Church have come to maturity at a period in which Rationalism exercised considerable influence? Under the baneful impact of rationalist thought, we have seen the Western Church turn aside from mystery, poetry, wonder and ultimately from humanity itself. In their place were substituted systematic and analytic thought, a dangerous dualism which divided nature from grace and body from soul and concentration on interior states and phases of consciousness. Contact with tan feeling for the symbolic world of the Scriptures and the Fathers was lost: liturgical awareness disappeared; mental and spiritual exercises came to assume an inhuman paramountcy at the expense of the whole man; the individual and his “experiences” were dissociated from daily life and communal interaction.

Something of the wholeness, the sanity and the balance of the Benedictine centuries has been lost during the last four hundred years. The world has become a vastly different place and within the Church not everything that has been good has been retained. And divisions within Christianity have increased.

Table of Contents:

The Art of Interpreting the Rule
Principles of interpretation and application of the rule of Benedict
The hard sayings of the Rule of Saint Benedict
Orthopraxy and interpretation: reflections on Regula Benedicti

The Benedictine Tradition
Quod Experimento Didicimus: the heuristic wisdom of St. Benedict
The “Humanitas” of the Benedictine tradition
Ascetic and ecclesial: reflections on RB 73,5
The dynamic unfolding of the Benedictine charism

The Benedictine Community
Strangers to worldly ways: RB 4,20
“Community” in the Benedictine rule
Discernment and pastoral care
The Benedictine promises
The value of stability
Sacramentality and monastic consecration
The journey form fear to love: John Cassian’s road map
Taking counsel: reflections on RB 3
Compassion: the mainspring of ministry

Monastic Formation
Models of monastic formation
Marketing monastic tradition within monasteries
The rule of Benedict and inculturation: a formative perspective

Epilogue The monk in the modern world