What is the Religious Life? From the Gospels to Aquinas
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an ancient tradition for contemporary spirituality
Baker Academic £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.60
FR AIDAN NICHOLS writes with ease and authority, covering the story of religious life from its pre-Christian roots such as the Essenes, through the Desert Fathers, St Augustine, St Benedict and the various reforms, to the Friars, and especially St Dominic and St Thomas Aquinas.
There are three chapters on the “World of the Fathers”. Fr Nichols believes that all the essentials of religious life are to be found here. Each new movement can be seen as an attempt to return to patristic theology and practice, a ressourcement.
Inevitably, there are references in various parts of the book to the Dominican “take” on the tradition. This thread leads from the Fathers, through Augustine, the canons, and especially the Premonstratensians, with contributions from Grandmont, and the Cistercians.
The last chapter in the book is a very lucid discussion of St Thomas’s theology of the religious life, especially on the state of perfection and the vows. The conclusion argues that the religious life in the Western Church is one tree with many branches; the various religious orders need to recover the depth of this unity while maintaining their diversity in mission.
It is a very short book, only 81 pages, but it is packed with information and explanation. It has a good index and plenty of footnotes to guide the inquisitive reader into some of the primary sources. It is an excellent short introduction to the subject.
Evangelicals make a habit of shortening their Christian names; so the cover of Dr Peters’s book tells the reader that here is an Evangelical who has discovered monasticism and wants to persuade his Evangelical friends that monasticism is “a good thing”.
The book contains a wealth of information, and it goes further than Nichols by continuing the story through and after the Reformation to present-day experiments in the “New Monasticism”. He argues very strongly that it is time to “re-monk the Church”; for to ignore monasticism is to ignore one of the main threads of the Christian tradition. He cites Karl Barth, who welcomed monasticism as a corrective to the world and the Church.
The scholarship is impressive: the bibliography takes up ten pages, and there are footnotes a-plenty. There is an introduction on “The Monastic Impulse”, and an epilogue on “Monasticism Today and Tomorrow”. In between, the book has four parts: St Antony to St Benedict, St Benedict to St Bernard, St Bernard to Martin Luther, and Luther to Thomas Merton.
Each part has three or four chapters, and the subject-matter is dealt with pretty thoroughly, sometimes too thoroughly. Very frequently, each of the key figures is said to have four or five, sometimes even more, major points, and each of these is carefully attended to and sometimes over-attended to. Occasionally, the analysis is unconvincing, such as the exegesis (page 30) of Matthew 19.12. Is there really a difference in meaning between “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” and “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”?
Each chapter has a “Ressourcement”, an attempt to get, from a study of the past, ideas that help us to understand the present, and that suggest what might occur in the future. These Ressourcements are an interesting mixture of comment, pious hopes, and practical suggestions. They stand apart from the more scholarly chapters in the book, at least because they are clearly “opinion”, and they are obviously aimed at an Evangelical audience.
Retreats are encouraged, and spiritual direction. The parish is a possible learning school for spirituality and the encouragement of countercultural attitudes. These are all ideas worth exploring. The trouble is that the programme of having a Ressourcement at the end of each chapter was unsustainable. Several of the ideas and suggestions are repeated, some more than once.
He also has a habit of introducing his chapters with a story. Do we need the story of Pope Joan to persuade us that some people will believe anything, despite the evidence? Or that wearing a uniform will elicit different reactions in different places? The stories may be entertaining ways to begin a lecture, or even a sermon. But to introduce almost every chapter in a book with a barely relevant story is off-putting.
There are many good things in this book, but it could have been much shorter.
Fr Jonathan Ewer is a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission.