Monastic Life from the Inside

Monastic Life from the Inside July 4, 2014

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

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.

Finding the Treasure

Finding the Treasure: Letters from a Global Monk by Father Augustine Roberts, OCSO is an epistolary autobiography, the author recounting his fascinating life story in a series of letters addressed to one of his brother monks. And his story in quite fascinating: the son of the missionary Anglican Bishop of Shanghai, he grew up in China only to have to return to the United States during wartime, where he matriculated at Yale — and promptly converted to Catholicism, following an older brother who had become a monk.

Although at first this was not Roberts’ intention, soon he entered the cloister as well (and remained even after his brother returned to the world). Roberts calls himself a “global monk,” referring not only to his journey from Shanghai to Spencer, MA — his journey then took him to Azul, Argentina, where he helped establish the first Trappist monastery in that country; eventually he returned to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer to become its abbot, a position he held for twelve years, until being called to serve as secretary to the Abbot General (the worldwide leader of the Strict Observance Cistercians) in Rome.

The positions he held in Rome meant that he literally travelled the world, supporting the Abbot General in his task, and seeing monasticism on a global scale. Finally, Roberts received one final call: back to Argentina, where he served as the abbot of Abadía Nuestra Señora de los Angeles in Azul for six years, before finally retiring in 2008. The mere external circumstances of Roberts’ life makes for a great read, but this book is all the better for his simple yet heartfelt faith, and how he manages to describe the twists and turns of his life always in the context of seeking the heart of God: the “treasure” of the book’s title, taken from Matthew 13:44-45.

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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