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Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life

Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life

by Hugh Feiss, Mariah Nelson

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"'Listen!' is the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict. Monastic life is a training in the art of listening, which begins in silence, develops in attentiveness, and is perfected in communication. . . . Silence is a dwindling resource in the contemporary world . . . and it is usually the first impression of visitors to a monastery. . . . The


"'Listen!' is the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict. Monastic life is a training in the art of listening, which begins in silence, develops in attentiveness, and is perfected in communication. . . . Silence is a dwindling resource in the contemporary world . . . and it is usually the first impression of visitors to a monastery. . . . The principal enemy of interior and exterior silence for most of us is our own tongue. Perhaps we fear the emptiness within us."
— from Essential Monastic Wisdom

A retreat to this kind of disciplined silence, attentive reverence for life, and whole peaceful living is why Americans are signing on in droves to yearlong waiting lists for the chance to spend a weekend at a monastery. Discard the silly images of humorless Mother Superior and emaciated monks in hair shirts; what people are seeking in the monastic experience is the chance to peel away life's accessories and gaze consciously into the woods of their present life and the horizons of their future. There is something powerfully authentic about a spiritual tradition grounded in centuries of experience and not manufactured twelve weeks ago and marketed in a series of seminars.

In Essential Monastic Wisdom, Fr. Hugh Feiss introduces you in one great omnibus to the rich history, traditions, and essential values of Christian monasticism. By exploring the daily activities in the monastery, the character traits that the monastic orders inculcate in their members, and the passions of desire and love that animate their lives, Fr. Feiss presents to us practical insights for balanced and satisfying living. Lessons drawn from fifteen centuries ofmonastic scholarship and reflection are arranged by topics such as prayer, hospitality, discernment, peace, leadership, and love. Brief essays at the beginning of each section provide a historical and theological context for the readings that follow and suggest how the lessons of the monastic way can provide guidance in everyday life.

These texts reflect both the diversity and continuity of the cloister through the ages, from the pre-Benedictine reflections of Antony and Pachomius, St. Bede, the renowned Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar, and the medieval writings of St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Gertrude to twentieth-century scholars such as Thomas Merton and Esther de Waal. Emphasizing those aspects of the monastic tradition with the most direct relevance to daily secular life, Fr. Feiss facilitates a conversation between these great monastics and contemporary men and women who might like to meet them.

While Essential Monastic Wisdom is rooted in Christianity, the book is intended for all readers with an interest in the lessons and values of monastic life, regardless of their religious convictions.

Author Biography: Fr. Hugh Feiss, O.S.B., has been a Benedictine monk for over thirty-five years. He is a teacher, scholar, author, and translator whose works include several studies of the monastic tradition.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

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Chapter One

Ordering Time and Place

Visitors are almost always impressed by the order that characterizes monastic life. The monks and nuns walk quietly through the cloister precincts. They walk two by two to solemn liturgies. Each member of the community has an assigned place and assigned duties. It all seems to run like clockwork.

Some of this order appears to be a fairly modern invention as far as Christian monastic history goes. Benedict said nothing about marching two by two into church, though he certainly did value decorum. One can theorize--justifiably, I think--that orderly communities tend to attract personalities for whom order is a high priority, so that order almost becomes a religious norm, if not a religion, to which freer spirits are forced to conform. This irritated Thomas Merton. There is, he commented in Contemplation in a World of Action,

a fatal tendency to dramatize the monastic life. A special costume and decor. A unique behavior, . . . a ritual solemnity and obsequiousness. In the end this amounts to attachment to feudal anachronism, and the monk who pretends to justify himself by these masks is only convincing people that he is an object for the museum.

Nevertheless, some kind of order is clearly necessary and important. Community life requires ordering. It is important to know who is doing the cooking today, what time we say morning prayer, who will get the mail, and so on. It is even important that we observe certain standards of polite behavior, just to avoid irritating those closest to us.

Even in one's individual life there needs to be order. It may not be necessarythat I make my meditation every day at the same time or that I read Scripture a half hour a day instead of three and a half hours a week, but it is necessary that there be some sort of plan whereby I set aside time to do the activities to which I am committed. Left to chance, some of those activities will not get done.

How structured life should be depends in part on personality and circumstance, but structured it must be.

Benedict was legislating for a community of people who evidently were ethnically and educationally diverse. There were children and old men, monks who had transferred from elsewhere, priests and laymen. He needed to integrate this diverse cross section of humanity into a kindly, well-organized community so that everything would be done at the proper time. He achieved this integration through several mechanisms, the most important of which were seniority and the daily order, or horarium. Seniority meant that each member of the community was assigned a place that depended on the time of his or her arrival. All the members of the community had a place of their own. They knew where they belonged. Some tasks were assigned in rotation on the basis of seniority; others were assigned according to talent and skill.

More important for us was the horarium. Benedict divided the day into three principal activities: work, prayer, and reading. The details varied according to the season of the year, but the division left four to five hours for work, about three hours for prayer, and slightly less than three hours for private reading (there was also public reading in the dining room during meals and elsewhere in the interval between supper and compline). Benedict specified when the members of the community should be occupied with these activities. He also made provision for two other activities: hospitality toward guests and mutual help and support. These two activities could be required at any time and were unpredictable. In order to be hospitable and helpful to each other, the monks had to have some flexibility in their schedules. If their schedules were completely full and unalterable, and thus no time was available to be hospitable and helpful, those schedules needed to be changed.

Saint Benedict did not like idleness, but he does not seem to have assigned any of these activities simply as a remedy for idleness. Work, prayer, and reading were activities to which his monks were obligated by their calling, talents, and humanity, and if they devoted themselves to those activities zealously, they would not be idle. But the value of work, prayer, and reading far exceeded their contribution to keeping the monks from idleness.

In fact, in the prologue and elsewhere, the Rule of Benedict conveys a sense of urgency: one must hasten and run toward the goal of everlasting life. The goal is precious; there is no time to waste getting there.

Each of these five activities of the horarium will be discussed later. What is important here is the fact that there had to be time for hospitality and for mutual help and support. Saint Benedict teaches a very important truth here, a truth most of us know but often neglect to act upon: after God, other persons are the most important realities in our lives. If we are too busy to make time for people who need us, whether they are strangers or neighbors, there is something wrong with our priorities. Worse yet, we may be using our obligations to work and prayer (and perhaps reading) as an excuse to try to evade our obligation to be helpful and hospitable.

These five activities not only divided up the hours of the monks' day; they also correlate to the defined space of the monastery. Prayer was done in church, reading in the cloister (and later in the library or the cell), work in the workshops; hospitality was provided in the guest house; and mutual support was given wherever it was needed.

What People are Saying About This

Mary Forman
"Hugh Feiss, O.S.B., reflects the insights of one who has lived the experience of the sages of the Christian monastic tradition. His introductions to virtuous communal living--unassuming yet honest--invite the reader to linger over and to savor old favorite sayings and recently translated excerpts, as well as new expressions of rediscovered monastic values from current writers. Monastics and those interested in Christian monasticism will find a treasury of wisdom from which to draw both old and new riches for their lives."
Philip Zaleski
"A splendid compendium of monastic knowledge and insight. Hugh Feiss has done a marvelous job of selecting passages that guide the reader, gently and persuasively, into the heart of the Christian contemplative tradition. A book to relish again and again."
Michael Downey
"Contemplative wisdom shimmers through these pages. What a jewel of a book for those who see the beauty of the monastic way, but must find the cloister amidst the demands of family and freeway, the marketplace and the mundane."
Lawrence S. Cunningham
"All religious seekers will love this sourcebook on monastic spirituality. It reflects a voice from the cloister, but its message is for everyone. Highly recommended."
Patrick Hart
"Benedictine Hugh Feiss has rendered a valuable service in introducing the Essential Monastic Wisdom to what I suspect will be a large and appreciative audience. Aimed primarily at non-monastics, though not exclusively, the author backs up his own writing on the various components of the monastic way with quotations from the best of ancient and modern Christian monastic authors."
Fr. Richard Rohr
"There are periods of history in which religion contributes very little to larger society, and there are periods in which religion holds it all together. Hugh Feiss's collection of 'monastic wisdom' reveals healthy and happy religion at its best. Not just wisdom, but readable, practical, and hopeful spirituality."
James A. Wiseman
"Hugh Feiss's well-chosen selections will help open up the riches of the Christian monastic tradition to readers from all walks of life."
Jeffrey Burton Russell
"For the many seeking a deeper spiritual life, this book beautifully presents insights, selected from centuries of monastic wisdom, that are a guide for daily living."
Paul Wilkes
"What a wonderful book! Think of this as a sumptuous spiritual smorgasbord awaiting you. Pass through these pages and enjoy a feast."

Meet the Author

Fr. Hugh Feiss, O.S.B., has been a Benedictine monk for over thirty-five years. He is a teacher, scholar, author, and translator whose works include several studies of the monastic tradition.

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