The Minds of the Monks

Essential Monastic Wisdom

by Father Hugh Feiss, OSB (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, 218 pages, $23)

As a writer, I could pay a book no higher compliment than to find myself thinking, as I turn its pages: I wish I had written this. As a monk, I often personalize the experience of reading even further, provided the work really moves me: I catch myself admiring the binding, the print, the cover — the way the book feels in my hands as its words reach into my mind and heart.

That's the kind of connection I felt with Essential Monastic Wisdom even though it's not the work of one individual, but a compilation of quotes from many monastic writers spanning the ages.

Yet, although this book was written by monks, it is not a book produced for monks. As Benedictine Father Hugh Feiss tells us in his general introduction, it is a book for lay people.

And it scores well on that count, too. Recognizing that a “vocational bias” might be coloring my evaluation of the volume with undue enthusiasm, I wrote a lay friend who was also reading it. “I found the book to be very readable as far as its style and organization,” she explained. “Each topic can be read in a brief period, say, half-hour after lunch, and the reader can consider what he or she has read throughout the day. Personally, I appreciated the history of monasticism; it was concise and understandable.”

She hits on a good point. To make the multidimensional interior life of a monk accessible to the laity, Father Feiss has translated, edited and introduced the writings in such a way that the reader can progress from front to back or skip around between chapters — each is dedicated to a particular aspect of monastic life — with no loss of continuity. And his introductions to each of the chapters are very helpful in setting in historical and spiritual context the writings that follow.

As for the writings he's selected, the authors span the centuries and represent a wide array of perspectives — from the desert fathers to Esther de Waal, a contemporary writer in England. (Incidentally, the latter is the only lay person included; her studies on St. Benedict's Rule as a guide for those “in the world” makes her an especially appropriate choice for our times.)

The book begins with a chapter on ordering time and place, then moves, like a monk's day, through prayer, reading and work.

“Let them direct to God the works that they do,” advises St. Hildegard of Bingen, “because human work that is directed to God will shine in Heaven.”

A chapter on mutual support muses on not only what a monk does for his brother monks, but also on receiving what they do for him. Next up is hospitality, with thoughts on monasteries' tradition of welcoming those who are in any way “tired, weary or poor.”

Sections follow on silence and speech, reverence, humility, simplicity, discernment, peace and patience, separation, stability, obedience, authority and longing.

I'm sure it's no accident that Father Feiss ends these chapters with a section on love — a gentle reminder of what all the other chapters are really about.

“Love is the first virtue,” writes John Trithemius, a medieval Benedictine priest who, I've now learned, wrote some 60 books. “Love is required of each believer; whatever is not done in love merits nothing. Next comes joy, so that we may serve the Lord, not in bitterness, but happily.”

About the only thing Father Feiss couldn't find covered, apparently, was a rumination on getting up early — a fact of life for any monk worth his salt. (I could have used that since I'm writing this book review at 5 a.m. It's a good thing he didn't ask me to write about that subject. I would have spent my words singing the praises of a good cup of coffee.)

The book concludes with interesting and concise biographies of all the contributing writers. This section serves as an informative resource: Where else could you look into the lives of such fascinating, but obscure, masters of the interior life as a nun named Syncletica or the seldom-quoted Wulfston of Worcester?

These people lived intense and prayerful lives. Hidden in life, they now make great and gifted guides. This book shouldn't be missed by anyone who's ever gone on retreat at a monastery and wondered: “What would it be like to live this life every day?”

Brother Craig Driscoll, founder of the Monks of Adoration, lives in Petersham, Massachusetts.