[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1640600647″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/51HZ3UQGpL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Listening to the Voice of God
in Your Heart
A Review of
Grace: On the Journey to God
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Mark Jenkins
With everything that Michael Casey does, I can’t help but wonder when he finds time to sleep! He is one of the most widely sought after, erudite, and respected priests active in the world of Roman Catholic monasticism. A select bibliography of his books and articles spans ten full pages, covering more than 45 years of publication. Fr. Casey has lectured and led retreats in more than forty countries on 6 continents. He was a primary force and the principal author behind the 1990 revision of the “The Constitutions and Statutes of the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance.” He served as prior of the Tarrawarra Monastery in Australia from 1988 to 2003 and vocation director from 1998 to 2012. He has written extensively on the care and formation of novices and has contributed significant, substantial scholarship to the field of Benedictine studies.
Given all this, I approached his latest work, Grace: On the Journey to God (Paraclete Press, 2018) expecting to be guided by a wise and insightful mind. And, in almost every way, that expectation did not go unmet. These chapters are drawn from various retreats Casey has led in religious communities around the world. As such, they delve deeply into matters of the spiritual life, leading the reader to focus upon fifteen discrete, yet related aspects of the spiritual journey. The opening chapter, “The Grace of Discontinuity,” is one of the strongest, reminding the reader that conversion is always the starting point for the spiritual journey. Our spiritual lives are permeated with a discontinuity that is conversion. Casey adroitly notes, however, that because conversion “has its origin outside ourselves, mostly it is unwelcome” (7).
With the exception of the appropriateness of beginning with a chapter on Conversion and concluding with chapters on Community and Communion, there seems little reason for the reader to feel compelled to take this book in the order in which it is presented. There is an almost unavoidable unevenness to the chapters, likely due to their having been composed at different times and for different audiences. I was especially appreciative of the chapter on the leisure, which Casey calls “a time and space of freedom and recuperation, in which the deep self can find fuller expression and, eventually, reach its perfection” (147). Drawing upon the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (of TED Talks fame) and his psychological concept of “flow,” Casey builds an effective case for the essential quality of leisure for the spiritual life. “Leisure is purposeful and personal activity,” he writes, “that aspires to be marked by flow. It is not slackness or idleness or the pursuit of recreational activities. It is, above all, being attentive to the present moment, open to all its implications, living it to the full” (151).
Likewise, in his chapter, “The Grace of Faith,” Casey offers keen insight into the nature of prayer. Prayer, he suggests, “could almost be defined as a period in which we deliberately give up control—and maybe that is why we are so reluctant to engage in it” (131). In many such places throughout the book Casey exhibits an understanding, not only of prayer, but also of the very human condition of the one who prays.
This book is not without its share of problems. As I have already noted, it is drawn from material developed for, and aimed at, what the author calls “religious communities.” It seems likely that most, if not all, of those communities are Roman Catholic, specifically Roman Catholic monastic houses. Because of the many similarities between the author’s life and that of Thomas Merton, Casey is often compared favorably with him. There were numerous points when I found myself reminded by him of something in Merton. And, likely because of their similar ecclesial backgrounds, there was a certain je ne sais quoi about the book that felt oddly familiar. My youth was highly influenced by Merton and this was familiar terrain and comfortable territory. Still, fifty years have passed since Fr. Merton last put pen to paper and some parts of the book have an almost doctrinaire quality with a strong adherence to tradition that, as a 21st century reader, I found unsettling.
Likewise, there are passages that, to my ear, indicate some degree of insensitivity to the pluralistic, post-Christian society in which most of his non-monastic readers now live and move and have their being. I truly shuddered to read Casey’s almost sectarian assertion that, “(t)o the casual observer, those countries whose social structures have not been formed by Christianity seem to value human lives less” (34). To his credit he readily admits that this observation may be the result of his own myopia. Nonetheless, I wonder how an author who is obviously aware of the indifference to human life exhibited by countries such as his own Australia or our United States—countries built upon the foundation of slave traffic and dispossessed indigenous people—can be so blind to the cruel and inhumane heritage of our so-called Christian societies. Such almost convenient omissions of our history of violence may present an obstacle to some readers.
On the whole, there is much wisdom to be gained from Fr. Casey’s words, and I suspect that most readers will forgive its occasional shortcoming. And one is well served to note that he is quite clear in the book’s introduction about the value and import of his words. “I cannot repeat too often: what you hear within your own spirit is more significant than what I say. My aim is to help you to listen to the voice of God in your heart” (vii). To that end, this reader found more than enough wisdom in his writing. And in my engagement with the text—even those parts with which I disagree—grace lurks, waiting to surprise us.
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