Finding the Monk Within: Great Monastic Values for Today
By Edward C. Sellner
Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
Ed Sellner is known primarily for his writing on various aspects of the Celtic Christian spiritual tradition (such as Wisdom of the Celtic Saints). And indeed, one of the most beautifully written chapters in Finding the Monk Within concerns Brigid of Kildare, well known as an Irish saint but also remarkable for being the Abbess of a mixed gender monastery. But in this book, Sellner places the Celtic monastic tradition in its context of the development of western Christian monasticism as a whole, beginning with the renowned fourth century hermit, Antony of the Desert, and continuing to the life of Bernard of Clairvaux, known both as “the last of the fathers” and also as the greatest of the Cistercian saints, who lived in the 12th century. Other figures who show up in Sellner’s 800 year odyssey include Hilary of Poitiers, Martin of Tours, Benedict of Nursia, and John Cassian, as well as two important hagiographers, Athanasius and Gregory the Great.
This book is more than a mere survey of early monastic history, for as the author considers each key figure in the history, he also reflects on what lessons — the titular “monastic values” — can be gleaned from the life, writings and witness of the great monastic leaders. For example, he links Athanasius with storytelling, Antony with silence and solitude, Augustine with friendship, and Brigit with compassion. Part of what I find so lovely about this book is that Sellner refuses to reduce monastic spirituality to any sort of formula — you won’t find “seven secrets of the Christian monk” in these pages. Rather, the recurring theme herein is the importance of a life lived with integrity and soul; indeed, metaphors of fire and light continually dance throughout these pages (and illuminate — pardon the pun — the themes that Sellner builds each of his chapters around). By the end of the book, the monastic values of community, friendship, silence and solitude, compassion, and spiritual accompaniment, seem not to belong to any one of these historical figures in particular, but are indeed our common heritage, values that all of us — whether we live in a cloister or not — can and should incorporate into our spiritual lives today.
But the real treasure of this book, even more than its interesting historical narrative or thoughtful meditation on the great monastic values, is its inclusivity. Sellner, as a university theologian rather than himself a monk, brings the fresh perspective of an uncloistered observer to the tradition, and so celebrates not only monastic values for those who are called to be monks, but for all persons, lay as well as consecrated religious. Even more importantly, he highlights the role that many women, often underappreciated or historically marginal figures, played in the development of monastic spirituality. Thus, he considers how important Amma Synclectica and the other desert mothers were in the fourth century; points out that Jerome (famous for being a misogynist) actually had several close friendships with women; and considers the impact that Augustine’s relationship with his mother, Monica; or Benedict’s relationship with his sister, Scholastica, had on their respective lives and work. And of course, the Celts with their culture relatively uninfluenced by the Roman Empire really shine here, as Brigid emerges as one of the most colorful and powerful of monastic figures: a true leader, who stands as an ancient witness to the truth that God does not discriminate in the call to leadership.
Finding the Monk Within is a gentle book; it makes no argument for monastic vocation or even for radical changes in the ordinary lay Christian life. But in its very gentleness, it points to the quiet treasures of this wisdom lineage, and invites all people to be enriched thereby.