Listen with Your Heart: Spiritual Living with the Rule of Saint Benedict
By M. Basil Pennington, OCSO
Edited by Br. Chaminade Crabtree, OCSO
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
Many books are available on the Rule of St. Benedict and how it applies to modern life. Esther De Waal, Joan Chittister, Michael Casey, Laura Swan, Norvene Vest and Elizabeth Canham are just a few of the writers who have offered their take on the Holy Rule for readers in our day. Almost without exception, all of these books are aimed at the layperson — either the Benedictine oblate, or else a person with no formal ties to a monastic community whatsoever, but who would like to unpack the wisdom of Benedict for their secular postmodern lives.
Right away, one can see the value of this collection of chapter talks from Basil Pennington during his tenure as the Abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia: this is a book about the Rule of Saint Benedict written by a monk, for monks. “Written” might not be the best choice of words, for this book is an anthology of transcripts (several of these talks have also been collected in their original form as a two-CD audiobook). Those of us with secular vocations are basically invited to “listen in” on the kind of teachings that is normally reserved only for those in the cloister. As such, not everything that Dom Pennington says will be immediately relevant to the non-monastic reader. But most of it is, and the book’s charm lies in how authentic it is in providing insight into the monastic formation process (as an obvious example, there is no hint of inclusive language here, somewhat startling for a book published in 2007 consisting of talks delivered just a few years earlier. But since Pennington was only addressing men, it stands to reason that his language would reflect this).
Nineteen talks are gathered in the book; nine of them are also available on the CD version. Needless to say, Pennington barely scratches the surface in terms of how much of the Rule he covers here: only the prologue of the Rule is covered in any depth, with several of the later talks drawing on aspects of selected chapters of the Rule. This is a testament both to the depth of the Rule and to Pennington’s wisdom, that he could speak at such length about the riches found in only a few lines of the text he is interpreting. Reading this book, I was struck that it represents the fruit of a lifetime of lectio divina, in that it shows how much insight can be released from relatively short passages of text. Spiritual maturity comes not just from reading a lot of books, whereas meditating deeply and mindfully on a few choice passages can be profoundly nurturing.
Since Pennington is not trying to teach new ideas to his community but simply reinforce foundational values, much of what is presented here may seem ordinary, almost pedestrian. His tendency to describe himself or his monks as “poor weak stupid sinners” comes across at first as a charming relic of pre-Vatican II discourse, but eventually it just feels annoying. Nevertheless, treasures are to be found on almost every page, whether it is Pennington’s incisive explication of Benedict’s original Latin, or his musing on the dynamics between the abbot and the community, or — at his very best — glimpses of a recognition that monastic spirituality is, at heart, an opportunity to foster higher consciousness, not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but as a way to serve others, both within and beyond the cloister. Like Benedict, Pennington keeps Christ front and center at all times. “We want complete integration with Christ,” he says bluntly. What makes this book a keeper is how he reveals Benedict’s genius in showing monks (and the rest of us) just how such complete integration is possible.
The CD audiobook version only includes about half of the talks in the book, but of course since it is Pennington’s own voice it is valuable for that reason alone. These are “field recordings” and as such they vary in quality. Like the recordings of Thomas Merton published by Credence Communications, these CDs present Dom Pennington in the act of speaking to his community — an intimate glimpse into a world rarely accessed by those who do not have a vocation to share in it.