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The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life

By Beverly Lanzetta. Blue Sapphire Books, 2018. 400 pages. $19/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

One of the more noteworthy movements in current spirituality is defined by those who, following the wisdom of centuries of monastic life, seek a deeper and more contemplative orientation within active daily life outside the monastery. They are reflecting what has been called the “monastic instinct,” the urge—acknowledged or not—within each person to seek divine wisdom in solitude and inner silence. Such monastically oriented seekers are referred to as “New Monks,” and they have given rise to numerous organizations that are part of what is called the New Monasticism Movement. One of these is the Community of a New Monastic Way, founded by the author of this book.

Beverly Lanzetta’s work is a wide‐ranging exploration of what follows from the fact that “we all have a contemplative dimension.” She has searched for the ways in which this instinct draws on centuries of monastic practice. Everything unfolds from the well‐established distinction (of course not restricted to monasticism) between the everyday “false self” and the hidden “deep self.” The heart of her exploration is found in the process of emptying in which we seek awareness of the stream of divinity in all beings. Chapter 17 (of 27) is devoted to this theme, where the “deep” or “true” self is defined as “not an individual entity or personality, but rather the openness or nothingness of being that belongs to the entire cosmos.”

Her grounding conviction, which she emphasizes throughout the book, is that “the monastic heart resides within all people,” and the book identifies impulses common to us all, such as a deep‐seated (though often obscured) longing for solitude and contemplation. She employs a nice definition of the often‐invoked distinction between “religious” and “spiritual”: the first term implying bonds to the fixed and determined, and the second implying a willingness to surrender the self to the unknown. The latter could even be said to be the theme of the whole book. Quaker readers may be surprised that the author, while seemingly unaware of the mystical practices of Friends, can yet talk about seeking God’s will in silence with words like “the intrinsic capacity of each self to touch and be touched by the Source.”

Those of us who can be called New Monks are said to share “expressions of monkhood”: a longing for solitude as grounding for the call to contemplation—a somewhat vague word defined later on as the search for the inner presence of divinity in one’s life—and a harnessing of the mystic within. The challenge to empty one’s (false) self to make room for participating in the life of the Divine leads to a reminder of the history and reality of “desert spirituality,” the complete stilling of the mind.

Monastics outside an ordered community are criticized for not being true monastics because they are not subject to community discipline. From this perspective, an absence of structures for discipline and obedience (vows, night vigils) and being ungrounded put people at risk. But writers on monasticism such as Raimon Panikkar and Bede Griffiths have pointed out that the world’s monastic experience includes long‐established models that obviate such criticisms, such as the long traditions of ancient Indian holy men and Sufis who do not live in community.

Another of the major themes is historical and contemporary women’s contemplative experience, referred to as via feminina. The feminine way is a path followed and an archetype that resides in both men and women. It is the gentle way of intimacy and nurturing, one that avoids excessive rationality, and is given poetic expression in Thomas Merton’s Hagia Sophia. The reader might think immediately of the Lady Wisdom figure of the Old Testament and Apocrypha Wisdom Books (“[she] was created before all things”). This figure is hinted at in this book but curiously never mentioned. This section on the mystical feminine is largely extracted from her recent book Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology, where Lanzetta explores the matter in more expansive detail.

After the first chapters in which the various qualities of the New Monk are established, the rest of the book is devoted to commentary filling out these themes, such as singling out the most important aspects of monasticism, the wisdom of vows, obedience (to the inner voice), celibacy (as a mystical state of being), the monastic personality and the monk’s journey, rewards of finding the true self, purity of heart, and poverty of spirit as detachment and emptiness. The section “Wisdom of the Elders” offers an historical dimension, where the author depicts Mahatma Gandhi and his “social mysticism” as the primary embodiment of the monastic instinct.

Lanzetta’s book is written out of firm commitment to its subtitle (“Embracing a Sacred Way of Life”), and any reader who is conscious of even a hint of the “New Monk” instinct will want to listen to its message.

William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting and the author of My Conversation with Sophia: Reflections on Wisdom’s Contemplative Path.

Posted in: June/July 2019 Books, June/July 2019: Food Choices, Quaker Book Reviews

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