Recently I have read two wonderful books that offer a glimpse into the life of a Trappist monk and Trappistine nun. Both books are autobiographical, yet imbued with a deep and rich spirituality. Both of the authors entered the cloister before Vatican II, went on to become an abbot or abbess of their respective communities, and are still alive today. Taken together, these books celebrate the down-to-earth simplicity and beauty of monastic life as lived in our time — and for those of us who are not and will probably never be monks or nuns, they are a lovely window into how an ancient spiritual life remains meaningful and relevant today.
There are even some interesting parallels between these books: both of the authors grew up in the far east (Sr. Agnes in the Philippines, Fr. Augustine in China), both were youth during World War II and entered monastic life in the 1950s, joining communities in Massachusetts. Monasticism enjoyed a surge of popularity for about a decade and a half following the second World War, so these authors represent that period of spiritual fervor and longing for God, in which many young men and women gave their lives to God through the cloister.
Light in the Shoe Shop: A Cobbler’s Contemplations by Sister Agnes Day, OCSO tells the story of a Trappistine nun who worked for many years as the cobbler for her community of nuns in Massachusetts. Then, much to her surprise, she was elected abbess of that community, a position she held from 1986 to 2008. She had written much of these “cobbler’s contemplations” prior to being elected abbess, and shared them with the members of her community, who urged her to publish the book, which she has done, now that she has retired from her leadership position. Sr. Agnes provides a years’ worth of monthly meditations, celebrating both the liturgical year and the turning of the seasons as she reflects on her life as a nun from the vantage point of her beloved old shoe shop, where for years she repaired the various footwear of her sisters in community. Cistercians are said to be “lovers of the community and the place,” and this quality shines through in this book, as Sr. Agnes celebrates her sisters, but especially the New England landscape where Mount St. Mary’s Abbey is located. She rounds out this book with a brief recounting of her life story (including her childhood and eventual discerning of her call to religious life) and a selection of her poems.
Both of these books are written in a very simple, heartfelt prose, where both authors share their life story and their rich faith through accessible, humble storytelling. Roberts’ is the more “mystical” of the two, for he tells of several profound encounters with the presence of God over the course of his life. But neither of the authors are particular interested in tooting their own horns: they simply have fallen in love with God and can share their spirituality in an unselfconscious way, thanks no doubt to the beauty of a healthy monastic life. You don’t have to be a monk to be inspired by these books — they certainly inspired me.
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