The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life
Reviewed by Julie Sumner
I saw it again last week for the first time in twenty months last Friday morning: an old metallic orange Land Rover with a vintage green license tag from some state out west. It’s been in a few scrapes, but has come out okay. I have no idea to whom it belongs, but only that they have a tendency to park next to me in my gym parking lot, and have been for about twenty years. We prefer the furthest horizontal row from the gym’s back door.
It’s strange the things that wreck you. When I saw the old orange beast, something inside me felt ordered; a sense of relief began to bloom and just might make it to a full flower. Whomever it was was ok, too. They were back here with me, in the gym parking lot. The disorder we have all experienced has undone us in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and it’s into these stunned days and nights that Joan Chittister’s book has arrived, perhaps providentially.
The Monastic Heart is a collection of meditative essays on fifty practices that Chittister– a Benedictine nun– considers characteristic of monastic living, as well as ruminations about how they might be appropriated by lay people. As we search for anything to restore order to our days which have been so upended by the pandemic, the orderly living that characterizes monasticism can be a helpful blueprint to help regain an even keel. As Chittister notes in her chapter on the monastic tradition of the keeping of the horarium, or the schedule of the day, “(i)t’s when freedom isn’t freedom at all that the confusion of time soon becomes a confusion of soul. It doesn’t take long to figure out that to have no fixed time for the major parts of life is to have bartered our freedom away” (31).
“A confusion of the soul” seems like a great description of how our disrupted schedules transformed time into a shared sense of melancholy. Much of The Monastic Heart centers around keeping routines and order, not only of our time, but of our thoughts and memories as well. One of the most intriguing chapters, “Memento Mori,” describes the role of the convent’s necrology board, which keeps archives of “the life and death of every sister who has entered this monastery from the time of our foundation…” (177). These names and lives are read aloud at lunch every day, a repeating reminder of the lives that have gone on before them, remembering their past even as they continually work toward the future. The point is not to make an idol of the past or its traditions, but to realize that the people who came before us on this earth, like those who survived the Spanish flu epidemic in the previous century, can offer “a sense of possibility in periods that look as hopeless to you as theirs must have looked to them. It’s not the past you seek. It is the model, the energy of the past that’s important” (179-180).
In keeping with her idea that the past is a vast storehouse of wisdom, Chittister recounts the historical importance of the Benedictine monastic movement as the stabilizing force for Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. She also explains the reasoning behind what to some may look like abstract rules and symbols, such as the daily schedule of prayer or the profession candle. I confess that I was expecting a more prescriptive tone, but Chittister writes more as a spiritual director, interrogating the reader with ideas and questions rather than presenting formulas to be followed. Consider this for the reader in the chapter “Candles,” “You must forever ask yourself where are you looking for the treasure of life, where it is dark or where it is light” (184). What becomes apparent throughout the fifty chapters is that the practices are a means to formation, and not mere rules to be followed for their own sake.
With titles ranging from “Bells,” “Choir,” and “Candles” to “Hospitality,” “Serenity,” and “Contemplation,” Chittister covers a wide range of ground for the body, mind, and spirit. It’s a spirituality of the whole person. Notably, she spends three of the later chapters focusing exclusively on the virtue of humility. This seems highly appropriate, since St. Benedict himself wrote more about that in his rule than any other virtue, and our selfie-obsessed culture desperately needs a course in humility. Unlike the current popular view of humility as a kind of self-abasement, the virtue of humility, according to Benedictine monasticism, is foremost grounded in the knowledge that “God is with you now, and here, and always. You don’t have to get God, to earn God. You have God already and always will” (200). It is this knowledge, according to Chittister and St. Benedict, that allows one to have “…genuine, rock-bottom awareness that you are neither more nor less good, right, knowing, holy, than any other human being around you…” (200). And the practice of humility, for Chittister, is a way to open oneself to embracing the larger needs of the community around you.
Near the end of her last chapter on humility, Chittister argues that “(y)ou and I are here to join the human race in finishing the work that God began but left us to complete” (211). This is a theme that runs throughout all fifty chapters of her work. The sanity and depth gained from the monastic practice is only the means to begin to serve the world around us, according to Chittister. It seems that choosing a life in the cloister has made the author more sensitive to the needs of the world rather than numb to them. Her admonitions to serve our desperate world are frequent and fervent. In this regard, I would have appreciated a more robust explanation of our dependence on the Holy Spirit to help us in our devotion to God and our service to the world. I say this as a Protestant who leans Pentecostal and has a deep and long-standing affection for the Catholic Church, so take that for what it’s worth.
The Monastic Heart would be a great year-long discussion for a Bible study or book club. It’s rich enough that you would want to spend time with each chapter and there is plenty to discuss. It’s also a good one to pick up and read in no particular order, just as the mood strikes. Chittister has done all of us a great service in presenting the strengths of the monastic lifestyle and how they can be appropriated to strengthen our own faith and our own communities, and how we can learn to wisely consider our time in this world in all of its fullness.