If you want access to a living Catholic contemplative tradition, look to the Trappists.
In the past few weeks I’ve read three books that demonstrate the wisdom of Trappist monks. Two of the books are new, and one is an overlooked gem from twenty years ago. One of the titles is written by a monk; the others by laypersons who share how the friendship and guidance of monks helped them in periods of transition in their own spiritual journey.
First up is Seeking Surrender: How My Friendship with a Trappist Monk Taught Me to Trust and Embrace Life by Colette Lafia. A warm, inviting, and gentle book, Lafia’s story of her seven years of correspondence with Brother René of Gethsemani Abbey reflects on how the wisdom of the monastery supported her in a time when she dealt with health issues and the disappointment of not having children. Br. René offers her down-to-earth advice on nurturing her faith, finding peace in God, and trusting that grace is always present even in times of loss and grief. Over the seven year arc of the letters (the book includes many of both Lafia’s and Br. René’s missives), Lafia evolves from a place of profoundly struggling with the challenges of her life to a position of serenity, courage, and surrender — not in a victimized sense, but in a place of joyful engagement with the dance of faith. The emotional tone of this book is authentic and inspiring, as it moves from turbulence to quiet joy. Interspersed throughout the narrative are invitations for the reader to reflect and engage in his or her own “seeking surrender” journey.
First published in 1996 (and now unfortunately out of print), David G. Hackett’s The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Monk has a similar “plot” to Seeking Surrender: Catholic layperson seeks spiritual guidance through letters written to and received from Trappist monks. But in Hackett’s case, the heart of the story is not learning to surrender, but discerning one’s vocation. Discovering both Catholic spirituality and zen meditation at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA in the early 1970s, Hackett enters the Church but then journeys from New England to southeast Asia, where he spends two years teaching English and exploring the frontiers of Zen/Catholic interspirituality. Along the way he meets or engages with the writings of some of the “big names” of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, including William Johnstone, Heinrich Dumoulin, and especially Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle. Spending most of his time in Japan but also visiting Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and South Korea, Hackett’s letters offer a kind of travelogue for Zen Catholics, describing in intimate detail a variety of communities working to find a meaningful way to integrate zazen with faith in Christ. The bulk of the book is drawn from letters the author wrote back to the monks of Spencer, but also includes some of the monks’ perceptive replies. Since the events in this book took place four decades ago, I’d love to know how the Buddhist-Christian encounter is faring in Japan today, but even without that coda, the book offers tremendous insight not only to the spirituality of a particular time and place, but also to the kinds of challenges an individual might face as he or she engages in interspiritual practice. Most important of all, most of the letters from monks in this book were written by Thomas Keating, several years before his own ministry in Contemplative Outreach began. As a glimpse into the significance of zazen in Keating’s life, as well as his wisdom in being able to offer guidance to a young Catholic through letters, the book is simply a treasure. It deserves to be back in print, even if only as an ebook (Continuum, are you listening?).
Finally, my favorite book so far of 2015 was written by a Trappist monk, so while it does not directly narrate the story of a person receiving guidance, the book itself is simply a treasury of contemplative wisdom. Tears of an Innocent God: Conversations on Silence, Kindness and Prayer, by Elias Marechal, weaves together stories, dream sequences, thoughtful reflection, and spiritual practices to form a brilliant exercise in contemplative insight. Marechal pulls from an almost dizzying array of sources: stories from his own life, Jewish folklore, the wisdom of the mystics, interfaith dialogue, tales from monasteries (his own and others) and keen insight into the many-faceted nature of human suffering, particularly concerning racism, anti-Semitism, and the violence of war. The result is a refreshingly honest book of spiritual counsel, that never floats off into pious platitudes but remains grounded both in authentic life experience and in the liberating wisdom of Jesus, whom Marechal describes as a voice for “radical equality and inclusivity.” Although each of the five “conversations” in the book culminates with instructions for a prayer or contemplative practice, this is not just another spiritual self-help book. If anything, this is a book that will challenge you, wherever you are, to take your hunger for God to a deeper, truer, more real place. Tears of an Innocent God is lyrically written, intelligent yet embodied, accessible yet challenging. I’ve never said this before, but I’ll say it now: I think this is a book that contemplatives will still be reading centuries from now. It’s that good.
So there you go. The Trappists are more than just Catholic ascetics — they are custodians of a living contemplative tradition, and these three books illustrate just how rich their wisdom is. Read all three, and then put them on your holiday gift-giving list.