Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Can you live like a monk? To create a better world, maybe we all should!

"Finding the Monk Within: Great Monastic Values for Today,"
by Edward C. Sellner

We would live more fulfilling lives -- and our 21st-Century society would be a better off -- if we were to adopt the values lived by monks and monastic communities through the ages.

That's the message Ed Sellner delivers as he shares the wise ways of holy people who lived the ascetic life in various ways since the times of the early church. He summarizes it so well with his perceptive concept that every person today needs "to live simply, to pray often, and to choose well," but there's so much more that adds practical, concrete approaches that anyone can take up -- and not have to move to a monastery to do so.

Sellner, who teaches at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, has really done yeoman's work here in this HiddenSpring publication by Paulist Press. The 272-page book -- minus notes -- takes readers on a journey through the lives of a handful of monastic "celebrities," if you will.

Chapters include the likes of Athanasius of Alexandria, Antony of Egypt, Martin of Tours, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine and Monica, Brigit of Kildare, Gregory the Great, Benedict and Scholastica, and Bernard of Clairvaux, among others. Sellner shows how the monastic tradition grew and developed from the Third Century in the Middle East to Europe in the Middle Ages as monastics learned from their elders and added charisms that were needed at their time in history.

The stories of these saintly folks aren't always compelling reading, but there are enough passages of interesting details in their lives that will keep a reader moving through the pages. The gift of this work, though, is that Sellner consistently brings the reader back to the values these ancient folks practiced and why those values are important for those of us currently on the planet.

Which holy figures teach what values?
  • Athanasius: Sharing stories, "and that one does not have to be a monk in a monastery to live out monastic values today."
  • Antony: Silence and solitude, and how they can foster discernment, the ability to begin to see differences between right and wrong.
  • Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours: faith, and its participative and communal dimension.
  • Augustine and Monica: friendship.
  • Jerome, Paula and Eustochium: the need for qualified spiritual mentors.
  • John Cassian and Germanus: the value of disclosing our secrets, plus dedication to inner work.
  • Brigit and other Irish monastics: compassion, and including lay people in monastic communities and women in decision-making and leadership positions.
  • Gregory the Great: contemplation.
  • Benedict and Scholastica: stability and love.
  • Bernard of Clairvaux: learning to read the "book of experience," the book of our lives, as well as the book of our hearts.
Why would anyone wish to follow in the footsteps of the monastic headliners?

To both develop an interior life and to make a difference in the world, according to Sellner. To do so one needs to identify the values the monastics lived and incorporate them into their own deeper selves.

"These are not only monastic values," he writes, "but values of the soul -- and they apply to everyone, regardless of gender, occupation, material status, or place of residence."

Sellner puts it well in his conclusion:

"What our study of monasticism reveals is that to affirm and nurture the growth of the true inner self a 'new monk' must develop an asceticism of loving. This form of asceticism, so much need today, presumes that to love well a person needs discipline, the setting of limits, the investment of time and energy in relationships and work that reflect at least some of the values discussed here.

"Such an asceticism of living involves a commitment to growth in self-knowledge, self-discipline, and self-love, all based upon the profound conviction, so difficult at times to believe, that God created us for a purpose, that God loved us first. To discover this and make this a daily, lived experience, one must learn to listen to the heartbeat of God." -- bz

Monday, June 16, 2008

Conflict boils over in novel about post-Vatican II parish life

"Waiting for Mozart,"
by Charles Pilon

A page-turning novel because of the drama in the conflict, yet not exactly bestseller quality?

Interesting characters, but sometimes quasi-believable stereotypes?

Spot-on lessons for life, yet propaganda-filled

The questions were the aftertaste from furiously reading Chuck Pilon’s “Waiting for Mozart.”

It’s a good novel, if you judge by the fact that you just have to keep reading to find out how the conflict is going to end between the pastor and the parish council at fictional St. Mary Parish in fictional Mapleton, Minn.

But the getting there isn’t smooth.

I’m certain there is a parish somewhere where disagreements are unknown, but I’ll bet everyone who has ever been involved with a parish council – or run up against seemingly unreasonable leadership in any setting – will both recognize and empathize with the people caught up in St. Mary’s tempest.

Pilon’s captured the flavor of some of that in the post-Vatican Council II church. Since he formerly served as a priest, I’m sure that he’s writing in part from real-life experiences.

Yet the jagged edges of the writing, the dialogue that just doesn’t sound like any real person speaks, are distracting, from a literary critique point of view. I’d have loved to have read this book after a tougher editor got a hold of the text.

For contrast, think of the crisp repartee in the play “Mass Appeal,” for example, superb writing on a similar subject matter.

As delicately as it is worded, there’s propaganda on these pages, and maybe enough to anger Catholics on several sides of the celibate male priesthood concept. Pilon has an archbishop character predict that, “When the time is right, the Holy Father will make the change in a way that will re-introduce the idea and the practice of having a married clergy. Eventually that will include women.”

That kind of statement would surely earn the darts of one segment of the church, but then the character quickly adds, “That’s my opinion. I think it’s coming, but the Church isn’t ready for it. The people aren’t ready.” And that will just as surely tick off another segment. The permanent diaconate takes a shot as well.

But this is a novel, after all, and it deserves to be read as a novel. The propaganda isn’t hidden, it’s right out there in the open.

And the lessons Pilon shares are worth absorbing, such as:

  • "Sometimes the wrapping is as important as what's in the package....Commitment and being right aren't the only important things. You've got to reach the listener. It's possible to always be right and never be heard."
  • "We've got to keep in mind that the really crucial issues, even in today's church, are few in number. Not many that a guy would want to die for. I don't have to have an answer for everything."
  • "The only day worth living is the day I do something to bring people together."
  • "Be hard on the problem, go easy on the people involved."
  • "When you're in the heat of things, it's hard to remember that war almost never brings peace. You forget that you can't be a reformer if you think in terms of them and us. That way, everyone loses; nobody finds the Grail. You get fixed on final, forever-like answers. You write the last chapters when the story is still unfolding."

So, despite it's lack of perfection, "Waiting for Mozart" is worthy of print and worthy of reading both by the leaders of the church and the People of God, if only so that some of the novel's lessons enter into those contentious times in church life. -- bz