Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks
By Jon M. Sweeney
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009
Review by Carl McColman
Monasteries are archetypal. Even for Protestants who live in a religious milieu that does not include monastic communities, monks and nuns (and their communal way of life) symbolize either strong positive or negative concepts: at worst, they represent religious decadence or hypocrisy, no doubt a lingering after-effect of the hostilities of the reformation era or the economic injustices of pre-revolutionary France. But monasticism can also represent the idea of giving oneself totally to God, in a life of fervent devotion that renders even asceticism, self-sacrifice and celibacy as small prices to pay.
As a Protestant youth, my introduction to monasticism came through books: reading the works of monks like Thomas Merton, or of other authors who spoke highly of consecrated religious life, like Evelyn Underhill. Author Jon Sweeney had a similar introduction to the life, when, as a teenager a pastor suggested he read Merton. As an undergraduate, Sweeney made the effort to actually go and visit the monastery where Thomas Merton lived — and thus began a lifelong journey of appreciation for monastic life, anchored in several friendships and spiritual mentoring relationships that he developed with monks, not only at Merton’s Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, but also at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA and Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers, GA (which is the monastery where I work, in the Abbey Store). Writing in his midlife, Cloister Talks represents over twenty years of life and learning as Sweeney evolves from a brash young evangelical unsure of what to make of this ancient lifestyle, to a thoughtful and perceptive 40-something who understands just how precious the wisdom of the cloister is — and what a profound role it has played in his own life and spiritual growth.
This book is a joy to read, because Sweeney is a natural storyteller and keeps his focus on both his own inner development and on the lighthearted, often humorous and even playful dialogue that he shares with a number of monks over the years. The most renowned of his monastic friends is M. Basil Pennington, one of the founders of the centering prayer movement and possibly the most prolific contemporary monastic writer after Merton. But this is far more than a memoir of a friendship with a famous author. Most of the monks who appear in Cloister Talks are just ordinary monastics, and Sweeney even changes their names in an effort to shield their identity (although, to be honest, all the monks from Conyers were easy enough for me to identify!). This is not meant to be so much a book about individual monks as about their collective wisdom, and so really the key figure is the author himself; the book is built around his arc of learning to wrestle with the call to contemplation, the need to unlearn worldly habits of striving and the egoic need to be “original,” and understanding the role of work and play in one’s overall spiritual life. The author asks honest questions of his cloistered friends: Do monks get lonely? What’s so different about being a monk? What do monks think about death? Why is stability (the monastic vow to live at one monastery, rarely leaving the cloister) so important? The answers he gets don’t always satisfy him, and he says so. But more often, the monks give him plenty to ponder as he stumbles along, not only with his own fits and starts as he learns how to pray, but also with the quotidian challenges of raising children, and dealing with an increasingly troubled marriage. Sweeney’s monastic friends never fix his problems, but provide him space to look at the dynamics of his life in a new way.
At one point he grouses about how frustrating it is that the monks who offer him spiritual guidance don’t offer any kind of spiritual method or program and don’t even make any promises. “‘We can show you how to be quiet, how to listen, but only God can show you the other stuff,’ Father Ambrose told me long ago. ‘What stuff?’ ‘You.’”
So many books on monastic spirituality offer a wealth of information, unpacking the storied history of monasticism, or the profound wisdom of true masters like Merton or his predecessors like Bernard of Clairvaux or Aelred of Rievaulx. But while such books can be dazzling in the insight they offer, they also often as not can be dull or difficult to read. By contrast, Cloister Talks is delightful, down-to-earth, warm, and geared toward the reader who may have no real knowledge of consecrated religious life. As such, it is a treasure.