Book review in one tweet
A short introduction into monks, their lives, and most importantly, their love of God.
Law is love which binds and obliges…These words embrace not only the letter but also the spirit, and indicate that St. Stephen realized the rule was not merely an external standard to which one's actions had to conform, but a life which, if it was lived, would transform the monk from within.
About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go with him on a monastic retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani, the long time home of Thomas Merton. The retreat was fairly unstructured: a couple of talks by the guestmaster, three simple meals, prayer services seven times a day (starting at 3:00 AM), all of which were entirely optional. The monks charged nothing, and simply allowed us to pay whatever it was we felt like we should. There was really only one thing required, one rule that you had to follow.
And that was silence.
The silence was what made the Abbey so different, the experience so unique. For three days, the only time you opened your mouth was in prayer. It was one of the best experiences of my spiritual life, and it was that memory of silence that attracted me to The Silent Life, a book about monastic ideals and practices from the man who once lived and wrote at Gethsemani.
And I was largely pleased with what I read. Merton is often not the best stylist. His prose tends to be more practical than poetic, and he is more concerned with explaining than convincing. This is not a work of apologetics, not a book that will attempt to convince you to join a holy order, or even become a Christian if you are not one already. Rather, it is a fairly succinct and basic primer on what the monastic life is, how that life is lived within different orders, and the philosophy that informs all of them.
Some readers likely will be. Actually, who am I kidding, most readers likely will be. But if you stick with the book long enough, you'll find that every once in a while Merton will write something that will blow you away with its depth of thought. There were a number of pages that I read over and over again, not because they were unclear, but because there was so much of importance that was being said, so many implications for my own life that sprang from his thinking, that I wanted to make sure I noticed and understood all of them.
The life of a monk is and always has been antithetical to the rest of the world. Which is a fancy way of saying that monks are weird. They sing weird music, they wear weird clothes, they live in weird places. They live alone, and yet their guest house is always full. And most of all, they are silent. They say what needs to be said, and as little else as possible.
The Silent Life embodies those values as well as explaining them. It says what it needs to say, it says it plainly, and then it shuts up, and gets out of the way between you and God.
6 wizard staffs (out of 10)
This is a book for religious nerds, people who are fascinated with deep spiritual thinking of all types, and people who have ever wondered what being a monk is actually about. It's not Merton's best work, but it's fairly short, and worth grabbing if you're lucky enough to have a copy at your library.
5 cold, frosty beers (out of 10)
Normally I'd probably rate this as three or four beers, but I think there's enough here that applies to everyone to keep non-nerds interested. The spiritual thinking of the monks is pretty insightful, and easy enough for anyone to understand. Just don't worry about which particular church father said what, or which order of what monks was known for praise and which for writing, and you'll enjoy it just fine.
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