Revisiting Grace: Wisdom and Photography from a Trappist Monk

Revisiting Grace: Wisdom and Photography from a Trappist Monk November 26, 2019

If you are looking for a wonderful Christmas gift idea, I’ve got a suggestion for you: the newly released “Memorial Edition” of Grace Revisited: Epiphanies from a Trappist Monk by Fr. James Stephen Behrens, OCSO.

The new edition of Grace Revisited. Cover photograph by Fr. James.

Father James passed away suddenly earlier this year; you can read my obituary for him here: Remembering the Monk Who Wrote About Grace. At the time of his passing, all of Fr. James’s books were out of print, but the publisher was preparing a new edition of Grace Revisited. Alas, that new edition has now become a memorial after the author’s untimely death.

Fr. James became a writer in midlife, after spending two decades as a diocesan priest and then entering monastic life at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. His family had roots in New Orleans and he became friends with the noted Catholic novelist Walker Percy, who encouraged James to write and to seek publication. He launched his career when his first essay, “Andy’s Diner,” was published by the National Catholic Reporter.

“Andy’s Diner” tells about his experience people-watching at an eatery in New Jersey near the parish he served. “I used to go there alone every morning and find an empty stool near the far end of the counter to better enjoy the parade of humanity,” he wrote, going on to remark, “Most did not know I was a priest.” The essay goes on to display what made Fr. James such a wonderful writer: a warm-hearted but unsentimental reflection on the ordinary people and their ordinary lives who came and went from that ordinary diner. What it is not an explicitly “religious” or even “spiritual” piece of writing, Fr. James does speculate on how organized religion might learn a thing or two from the “Andy’s Diners” of the world.

This first essay established the template for Fr. Jame’s writing: short pieces of non-fiction, usually focused on something entirely down-to-earth or everyday, which he would describe without commentary or preachifying. He never tried to give his subjects a pious veneer, but his work always managed to convey the most meaningful kind of spirituality there is: the spirituality of the human heart.

He continued to have essays published in NCR, while other pieces of his appeared in  his local newspaper or in the Catholic newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese, the Georgia Bulletin. On occasion he would also write something and just circulate it via email among his friends.

Eventually two collections of his essays were published, Grace is Everywhere and Memories of Grace. He also wrote a collection of meditations called Be Gentle, Be Faithful. But by the time I met him in 2005, his interest in writing began to take a back seat to his other great love: photography.

Fr. James’ best-selling (and award-winning) book, Portraits of Grace: Images and Words from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit was published in 2007. Once again, the book eschews the normal tropes and clichés of religious writing and religious art. But in this collection of the most mundane images — an empty bowl on a plate, a pair of boots by a threshold, a collection of gardening tools neatly arranged on a wall — Fr. James shows just how keen was his ability to see the sacred in the everyday. He wrote a brief meditation to accompany each image, making the book more than just a work of art — it’s a devotional imitation into a truly contemplative way of seeing the world.

Fr. James. Photo by Br. Chaminade Crabtree, OCSO.

He would go on to contribute his photography to books by other writers, like Bernadette Snyder and Irene Zimmerman. He talked about wanting to publish another book of photographs, this time filled with portraits. But it never happened, at least not during his lifetime.

Grace Revisited was first published in 2011, collecting together the material from his first two collections of essays, along with “Andy’s Diner” which had never before been published in book form. This new “Memorial Edition” features all the writing from the earlier edition, along with a selection of photographs and meditations from Portraits of Grace. All in all, it’s a wonderful survey of the wisdom and imagery from a truly talented (and down-to-earth) monk.

Since Fr. James died unexpectedly just before this book went to press, the publisher, Greg Pierce, was able to insert a brief foreword acknowledging his friendship with Fr. James.

If you are already familiar with Fr. James’ thoughtful and warm-hearted writing (and deeply contemplative photography), you don’t need any encouragement from me to know what a wonderful book this is. But if you are not familiar with the words and images from this most extraordinary ordinary monk, then let me assure you: a treat awaits you.

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