Thursday, December 25, 2014

Carmelite Spirituality

"At the Fountain of Elijah" (1999) by Wilfrid McGreal is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. In typical fashion, the book provides a fascinating and entertaining introduction and overview of the Carmelite spiritual tradition.

The book begins by providing some historical background to the Carmelite order. The Carmelites began in the 12th century when a group of pilgrims and hermits settled on Mt. Carmel in Israel seeking to live a more authentic spiritual life. Mt. Carmel was a place of historic significance and this spiritual idea took hold of many followers. Mt. Carmel after all, had been the home of Elijah the prophet and the mountain was also seen as a place of abundance and beauty. Returning to Europe, Pope Innocent IV approved their way of life which focused on contemplation but also included a deep commitment to a communal life and service to the community.

What is it about the Carmelite tradition that attracts many today? McGreal quotes an American Carmelite who writes:

"The Carmelite tradition speaks to those who long to be apart, to separate from a smothering existence. the tradition offers the lure of wilderness, mountain retreat, vast expanses of desert. In solitude, in a place apart, we searchers hope to hear our heart's desires more clearly, to reassess life, to dream, to be nourished by hidden springs, to meet the One whom others speak of with great assurance. Those who are drawn by the Carmelite tradition are often pilgrims to places unknown, trusting the testimony of others who have taken the same ancient path" (pg. 13).

That phrase a "smothering existence" strikes home! Who today cannot relate to that in our present day world filled with gadgets, noise, and our culture's maniacal stress on speed?

As in other volumes in this series, the reader is also introduced to the major spiritual figures in the tradition. Speaking for myself, I have to say that I find this one of the real strengths of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. For the Carmelites this includes Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, John of St. Samson, Lawrence of the Resurrection, Therese of Lisieux Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma. These are fantastic chapters and provide wonderful overviews of some terrific spiritual luminaries. You get bit sized nuggets on each writer, and learn about such themes as the dark night of the soul and the practice of the presence of God.

Wilfrid McGreal has done us a great service in writing about the Carmelite tradition from the 12th century to the present. The reader gets a taste for the Carmelite Rule, history and some of its major figures. The book is well written and easy to read and I wish it was twice the size! Part of me is a Carmelite as I resonate to the themes of Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

This volume and series belongs in every seminary, church library, and students interested in the history of spirituality. Really good! A bibliography guise the reader to other important Carmelite literature.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Augustinian Spirituality

“Our Restless Heart” by Thomas Martin, is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series and covers the Augustinian Tradition. Augustine had a towering impact over Western Christianity as no other, and his only real rival was St. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine is a fascinating and talented figure-a gifted theologian, writer, poet, bishop, and monk whose intellectual and spiritual legacy is claimed by Catholic and Protestant alike. Who was Augustine and why is the Augustinian legacy important today? These very questions “Our Restless Heart” tries to answer.

The opening chapter-and perhaps the most important chapter in the book-provides an overview of Augustine’s spiritual vision. There are important historical facts such as Augustine’s early life, relationship with his mother Monica and son Deodatus, and finally his famous conversion. Augustine’s celebrated quote that his heart was restless until he found his rest in God is seen by Martin as a metaphor of “the journey” (peregrinato) and key to understanding Augustinian spirituality (pg. 25). This is a same sense of "journey" that we find in Biblical accounts such as in Abram’s call and in classical literature such as Homer’s Odyssey. The call to grow, the leave the familiar, and to reach beyond  to the unknown.  

Chapter two examines the Rule of St. Augustine, The Praeceptum, which covered the key aspects of monastic life; the basis cf common life; prayer; moderation and self denial; safeguarding chastity and fraternal correction; the care of the community; asking pardon and forgiving offenses; governance and obedience; and observance of the rule. The key charism of the Augustinian Tradition is love where love of neighbor and unity reflect God’s love for us. This is a great chapter as it shows the uniqueness of the Augustine Rule.

The third and fourth chapter examine how the Augustine order reinvented itself and became part of the Mendicant reforms. Chapter five-is one of the most fascinating in the book-and demonstrates how the Catholic Humanists and Protestant Reformers found inspiration in different parts of Augustine, claiming the Bishop of Hippo as their own. It is a tribute to depth of Augustine that Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jerome Seripando call all claim to different parts of the Augustan cannon. This is best demonstrated when John Calvin wrote “It is Augustine who is the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity whom we most often cite” (pg. 127). That statement could have easily been written by the other three reformers. 

This is a great introduction to St. Augustine and to many of his theological and spiritual writings. Writing a book on Augustine is no easy task and to write a fresh and interesting book on Augustine and the entire Augustinian tradition is remarkable achievement. I really enjoyed this book and it left me asking for more.

Let me conclude this review with a quote from Augustine, the Doctor of Grace himself, as it reflects on the kind of person he was:

"What do I want: What do I desire: What do I burn for? Why am I sitting here? Why do I live? there’s only one reason: so that we may live together with Christ. This is my intense desire, this is my honor, this my richness, this my joy, this my glory…I DO NOT WANT TO BE SAVED WITHOUT YOU” (pg. 160).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Benedictine Spirituality

"Prayer and Community" (1998) by Columba Stewart is another title in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. The volume covers the Benedictine tradition, the largest monastic tradition in Christian monastic orders and tells the important story of one of the greatest laypersons in the history of the Church.

The significance and impact of Benedict and his rule was massive and presented the Christian experience in a new way. The Benedictines transformed monasticism from a solitary and often wandering tradition into a communal brother and sisterhood highlighted by a permanent location and a daily rule of work and prayer. Benedict put on end to the Celtic "rule" which in his eyes was too loose and unorganized. Benedict replaced the Celtic notion of wandering with stability as he felt the spiritual life could only flourish within a fixed structure and rule of life.

And what a "system" Benedict produced! Benedictine houses required each monk agree to lifelong poverty, chastity, total obedience to the abbot and the Rule, and a commitment to remain within the order for life. And for Benedictines, the recipe of success was also a unique blend of prayer and work centered around the liturgy of the hours, the lectio divina, personal prayer and silence. The Benedictine houses and monasteries were not just places of worship but also places of learning and culture. Benedictine communities were often linked with sprawling monasteries, farms, industries such as wineries, cheese making and a host of other monastic industries. 

As I have indicated in some of my other reviews in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, the best way to learn about the Benedictines is to visit a Benedictine monastery first hand. You will be amazed at how wonderful and enriching the experience can be. Here you will experience the Benedictine charism of hospitality, as well as the unique rhythm of monastic life. To me, this is the great feature about Stewart's book-he summarized the major points of a 15 century old tradition which is still a helpful guide for many today. I mention this only because I was raised in a Protestant home and then in my twenties went to a Benedictine monastery in up state New York and experienced monastic life first hand-it was a fantastic experience! This was Holy Cross Monastery which is linked here.