Friday, 18 January 2008

Suffering and Spirituality

Patrick Comerford finds a common thread running through some recently-published books on spirituality

The recent BBC television series, The Monastery and the Monastery Revisited, have been so successful that they are still being broadcast around the world – ABC in Australia ran the programmes at the end of 2007, two years after the first programme was made at Worth Abbey in England, and the a new genre was been generated with other BBC programmes such as The Convent and The Retreat, as well as the Discovery Channel’s The Monastery in the US.

The original broadcast of The Monastery in 2005 attracted three million viewers. The Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison, wrote a book, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everday life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0297851322, £10 Stg), describing what people were looking for and how the monastic tradition can help them in their search. That book too became an instant success and is now available in different editions throughout the world.

Now a book by Mark Barrett, one of the Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey who took part in the original series, has been published in a new edition as Crossing: reclaiming the landscape of our lives (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52696-7, £10.95 Stg).

In this enchanting book, Mark Barrett demonstrates the continuing relevance and power of monastic life. It is an enchanting book that emphasises the value and importance of silence, and that describes how the offices of the monastic day can provide each of us with markers to draw a map for our own individual spiritual journeys.

In a frank acknowledgement that there are times when he does not want God in his life at all, Mark Barrett prays that he may “want to want to pray.” But in his book, he beautifully presents the Benedictine daily office, with its regular cycle of birth and death. In the dark before early morning, the monks rise for the pre-dawn office of Vigils, and their day ends with the singing of the canticle Nunc Dimittis at the Night Office or Compline. It is a daily cycle of prayer that has had a lasting influence on Anglican prayer life and spirituality.

He also offers a way for those who do not live in monasteries to “access something of what is a daily experience among us supposed religious specialists.”

He hopes that the reader will find that monks – “so often the shadowy medieval figures of media-gothic” – are in reality fellow-seekers, apprentices training among the tools of a spiritual workshop. He points out that monastery life and monastic practices “are not a panacea for the ills of modern society, and it would be naïve to suggest that they can be. The point is rather that Christian monastic practices came into being at least in part as a response to the tidal currents of our hearts, set swirling by our busy lives, whichever century we live them in.”

The book could have been written about life in any of the five Anglican Benedictine communities in England – at Alton Abbey, Hampshire, Burford Priory outside Oxford, Edgware Abbey in North London, Elmore Abbey near Newbury, and Malling Abbey – and The Monastery could have been located in most of them. Many groups within the Church of Ireland have benefited from the hospitality and the facilities offered by the Benedictine communities at Rostrevor and Glenstal, and while this book serves not only as an interesting introduction to that tradition, but also reminds us of what we are missing because the monastic and Benedictine tradition was never fully restored to the Church of Ireland.

Professor Frances Young was the first Methodist minister to preach at the opening service of the Church of England General Synod. As a theologian she is well-known in Anglican theological circles, as one of the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), her work on the creeds, including The Making of the Creeds (1991), but more particularly for her work on the Biblical interpretation of the Early Fathers of the Church in the first four or five centuries.

Now retired as the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, Dr Young continues as an Honorary Fellow of Sarum College in Salisbury Cathedral Close. There her latest book, Brokenness and Blessing (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN 978-0-232-52656-1, £10.95 Stg), began as a series of lectures in 2004, and there the book was launched recently.

Dr Young has combined that academic career with ministry in the Methodist Church and bringing up a family. Her eldest son, Arthur, was born with profound learning disabilities, and is now 39. He is still cared for at home by Dr Young and her husband, and her journey with him has been an important catalyst for her theological exploration, including her work with the L’Arche Communities and Jean Vanier. Brokenness and Blessing is the fruit of all these influences. Here she explores the ways in which the earliest theologians and preachers read the Bible, and she seeks to recover a sense of the importance of the spiritual meaning of the text, as much as the literal or historic meaning.

Drawing on the wisdom of the Early Fathers of the Church, particularly the Desert Fathers, and exploring their relationship with Scripture, she attempts to bridge a gap between the work of biblical scholars and what is practised and believed by the ordinary churchgoer today.

Dr Young’s years of work as a scholar in the field of Biblical Studies, and as a preacher, as well as her personal experiences of caring for a son with profound learning disabilities and her journey with him. “The wilderness is not a comfortable place to be, but it is a place where one is more likely to meet God and discover one’s own limitations.”

What emerges in Brokenness and Blessing is a spirituality that offers both a realistic view of the human condition as well as “the wonderful gift of grace which brings hope of transformation.”

The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, is the author of many books, including Community and Growth, Becoming Human, Befriending the Stranger, and Made for Happiness, all published by Darton, Longman and Todd. Now DLT have reissued one of his classics, Man and Woman God Made Them (ISBN-13: 978-0-232-526981, £9.95 Stg) in a new and fully revised edition.

This book was first written 25 years ago, drawing on his experience of living and working with people of disability, listening to the cry for love from the person who is disabled and who often faces the danger that in the process of finding their place in society will also experience rejection, loneliness and isolation if not properly accompanied and assisted.

DLT has also published a new collection of articles by the late Henri Nouwen previously unpublished in book form, in which he explores selflessness, vocation, and how downward mobility is a key to the spiritual path. In the short reflections published as The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward mobility and the spiritual life (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52707-0, £8.95 Stg), Nouwen explores the theme of downward mobility as the way of Christ, and the things that tempt us away from it, including the lure of success, of power, of being needed and important.<

These essays were first serialised in the Radical American Christian magazine Sojourners, edited by Jim Wallis. Nouwen wrote the articles while he was a professor at Yale Divinity School, where he enjoyed academic success and found fame as a spiritual writer. But he was struggling to find his true vocation, and in these essays he seeks to explain for himself and his readers how choosing the downwardly mobile path can, conversely, be the means of growth and new life in Christ. Eventually, Nouwen left his career as a successful academic theologian to share his life with people of mental disability as pastor of L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. This small book is tastefully illustrated with drawings by Vincent Van Gogh.

Suffering and the writings of the Early Fathers have also been key sources for the Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Kenneth Stevenson, as he drew on his own recent, transfiguring life experiences, including a bout with leukaemia, in writing his new book, Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52692-9, £10.95 Stg). His experience of being diagnosed with leukaemia and his subsequent treatment had a profound effect on his faith and work, and he recently returned to public ministry after a bone marrow transplant.

In this book, Bishop Stevenson draws on diverse sources, including Eastern Orthodox iconography, the Early Fathers of the Church, Bishop Jeremy Taylor and modern Biblical scholarship, as well as his own disciplined practice of lectio divina, for his beautiful, charming learned and spiritual reflections on the Transfiguration narratives, exploring this enigmatic episode in the Gospels and finding in it a rich and subtle guide to the life of faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This review of books first appeared in the January edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)