“To Become More Fully Human”
A Review of
Two New Books on Christian Spirituality
Reviewed by Kevin Book Satterlee.
The Monastery of the Heart:
An Invitation to a Meaningful Life
Hardback: Bluebridge, 2011.
[ Amazon ]
Although Christianity has long been understood as by many as a set of doctrines confining people into a religion in which God and Jesus became life-depleting and discipleship was a soulless death, there has always been an undercurrent of life-giving, fulfilling Christian spirituality. Thomas Merton helped many Christians to reimagine a life-giving spiritual pursuit over doctrinal stuffiness. There are still many skeptics, but the publishing industry is pumping out new Christian spiritual books on a monthly basis. Spirituality is en vogue in pop culture, especially in Christian pop sub-culture, but many of the resources are valuable.
Sister Joan Chittister’s newest book, The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life, (BlueBridge) and David G. Benner’s book, Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, (Brazos) are two new books for 2011 about life-giving and distinctly human spiritualities. Chittister is a Benedictine nun and writes from her half-century in the monastic life. Benner is a professor of psychology at Richmont Graduate University, whose work focuses on psychology and spirituality.
While the two books are about spirituality, they take very different approaches. Benner writes about the psychology of spirituality and the spirituality of psychology. He is a clinical therapist and applies the principles of spirituality to psychological health. He comes from a Christian background and writes with Christian influence, however his pluralism of spirituality also dramatically influences his writing. Chittister’s work, on the other hand, is a poetic commentary on St. Benedict’s monastic rule. She is thoroughly Christian in her approach.
For both books, the purpose of spirituality is to be life-giving and fully human. Probably one of the main reasons people leave a Christian faith is because they feel as though their life is choked out rather than fulfilled. The Church talks about a life fulfilled, yet living in the Christian sub-culture often means the opposite. Many Christians say that without Christ there can be no happiness, yet often happiness is lost on the Church. Benner writes, “Spiritual paths and practices that distance us from what it means to be human are not good for humans.” (5) It is a simple yet profound statement often lost by a focus on religious doctrine rather than Godly transformation. Chittister echoes Benner, stating, “But for one man, Benedict of Nursia, the spiritual life lay in simply living this life, our daily life, well. All of it. Every simple, single action of it.” (viii) Spirituality is simple and life-producing.
To Benner, spirituality is a very human pursuit. Most people have some semblance of religion, and he brings up the fact that every religious spirituality is a noble and psychologically good pursuit. He notes that many leave institutional religion because spirituality has lost its meaning. “This is the conclusion of many formerly religious people who now define themselves as spiritual but not religious. They see no hope in restoring spirituality to institutional religion, which seems to them not even to have noticed that spirituality has taken its leave.” (68) For Benner, spirituality begins “long before [the] rites and is…much broader and deeper than can ever be experienced when one focuses only on religious practices.” (70) He continues to state that “none of the dimensions of soulful spirituality is the exclusive domain of any one religion…[but] each has an important role to play in Christian spirituality…” (70)
As a human pursuit, Benner states that spirituality is to be embodied. Contrary to much platonic theology, he argues that we relate spiritually from our physical bodies. To deprave the body is to deprave true, life-giving spirituality. Often spirituality seems as though it is “nothing more than to be conquered.” (80) Here one might look to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50 – “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” – and wonder if Benner is wrong. However Paul continues with the idea of putting on a body that is not perishable, but imperishable. To Paul one leaves the deathly flesh to put on lifely flesh. This flesh, this body, is human, one that is fully alive spiritually.
In the embodiment of spirituality, Benner writes about sexuality and how spirituality makes us more in tune with our sexuality. This does not mean we can fulfill all sexual cravings pure and impure and call it spiritual. In fact, quite the opposite. It means that we know who we are sexually, that we are self-identified by our bodies and by the gender that creates us and self-controlled. We relate to the world in our created gender, and in our sexual preference. To be alive spiritually is to know these things and be fulfilled in who we are.
Benner’s practices, as discussed in the final chapters of his book, are: awareness, wonder, otherness, reality, presence, and surrender. These practices, he notes, are almost universal in the major religious spiritualities. Benner draws on Sufi and Tao spirituality and applies them, along with Buddhism equally to Christian examples. These, for Benner, constitute psychological well-being and thus a fully human life. However while reading Benner, it seems as though personal fulfillment or self-centered spirituality is at the heart of his works. He leaves the reader questioning whether or not Christian spirituality is truly distinctive in the psychological pursuit of wholeness. He barely mentions Christ, directing his book towards a pluralistic spirituality, unfocused on anything but the betterment of self.
Chittister touches on all of Benner’s spiritual practices in her book, but hers are distinctively Christian, with little to no inference of other spiritual pursuits. Benedict, at the time, was immersed in a corrupted Christendom, and thus the plurality of religions was minimal, at least by societal approval. His monks likely came into contact with many other religions, but Benedict’s Rule was a reforming of Christian faith. Chittister’s spirituality as a “Monastery of the Heart” is for everyone who wishes a life lived in God. She writes her life-long learning in a monastic tradition for those who are not within monastic or Benedictine communities. We can all, in her mind, be a part of a Monastery of the Heart.
Many people see the monastic life as highly ascetic, and have also misinterpreted Benedict’s strong sense of seriousness. Chittister writes, however, that “Benedictine spirituality, after all, is life lived to the hilt.” (63) One might be tempted to see monasticism as the degrading of personhood, humanity and individuality, cloistered together in a common life. Chittister negates this and says that Benedictine monasteries “are not loose confederations of independent individuals. Neither are they monarchies in which individuals…are expected to give up their right to have their voices heard…” (83) Benedictine spirituality respects the individual and the individual submits willingly in fullness to the common life. In this spiritual communion, individuals become completely human, fulfilled, and dedicated to God. She writes, “Benedictine spirituality does not depend on spiritual actions as the hallmark of its quality. It requires us to do every tangible thing we can to create a human community – as decent and humanly dignified as our own.” (101)
Chittister’s book is full of spiritual wisdom. She writes out of a lived spirituality and invites the reader into the spiritual Benedictine community of the Monastery of the Heart. In contrast, Benner, writes as a psychologist. Chittister invites the reader to join a Christian spirituality, whereas Benner invokes the reader to participate in any religious spirituality. Benner’s book is highly readable. He expresses psychology of spirituality in laymen’s terms. He is fluent with spiritual practices and is a deeply soulful writer. Chittister writes her book in poetic stanzas, but in reality it is prose restructured into centered poetic-like text. Her book is sound and powerful, but the layout is choppy, making it less readable. Those not interested in poetry or accustomed to its line-breaks would be less likely to want to read it, but would thus miss out on her wisdom.
While Benner continues on in a tradition of writing about psychology and spirituality, I would rather pick up Nouwen’s works and find myself more immersed in a distinctively kingdom-based spirituality that recognizes the spiritual values in other religions. Benner, however recognizes the values of Christian spirituality and others for the human psychology. Chittister adds to spiritual literature because she expounds on the Benedictine Rule and updates its ethos for the modern mind. Benedictine spirituality is nothing new, but reading his Rule is arduous and often undesirable. Chittister, however, takes St. Benedicts sternness in his writing and shows how transformative it really is. The reader of Chittister’s book ought to read The Rule of St. Benedict before reading her book, but hers is a valuable commentary.
Despite the fact that Soulful Spirituality is a psychology book, I would rather trust my counsel to The Monastery of the Heart. Chittister’s career embedded in Benedictine spirituality seems more sound than Benner’s career studying a psychology of spirituality/spirituality of psychology. I would choose the book that focuses on a Christian spirituality that invites me to be more fully human rather than on the book that invites me to choose a Christian spirituality for a more fulfilled self.
Kevin Book-Satterlee is a George Fox Seminary alumnus and a Latin America Mission (www.lam.org) missionary.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com