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The Monastic Heart: 50 simple practices for a contemplative and fulfilling life by Joan Chittister

by
01 July 2022

Anne Spalding reads Benedictine guidance

SISTER Joan Chittister draws on her understanding and experience of Benedictine monastic life to write 50 reflections suitable for anyone wanting a more fulfilling life. The book is set up for readers to reflect on how we live now, and encourages us to make necessary changes.

Each chapter takes up one theme from monastic practice. Some are obvious, such as “The Rule of St Benedict”, “Lectio”, and “Silence”, but she does not necessarily expand on them in expected ways. For example, the sub-heading of “Silence” is “On Inner Quietude” rather than a focus on exterior quiet. Other chapters include “Antiphon”, “The Monastic Cell”, and “Candles”, which I found intriguing to explore.

For example, in “The Monastic Cell”, she draws out the need for privacy — for prayer and reflection — which felt like quite a challenge in a world that values public attention for everything. Only “Humility” gets three chapters, as it is the longest chapter in the Rule of Benedict. Chittister examines humility in relation to God (God is here: we are not earning our way to God), to ourselves (since God is here, it is safe to acknowledge ourselves as we are), and to building community (our attitude to, and behaviour with, others).

The first chapter is “Bells: On Remembering”. Chittister makes clear that monastic bells are not for telling the time: they are to draw attention back to what is really important in life. The question for the reader is what “sound” is in our life to keep us turning towards life’s real purpose.

Every chapter introduces the theme in a simple statement, then has a couple of pages to examine that, followed by another two pages or so, “Integrating the Practice”. I am not sure of the aim of these sections, but they always add to the richness of the theme. At the end of each chapter, a summary is given, often by repeating sentences from the chapter.

The book is well suited to being read for reflection, say one a day, or even one a week. The content merits more thought than is possible by reading several chapters at a time.

Chittister wrote in response to the pandemic and to people wondering what is important in life, but I think that my reading was enriched by my knowing something of monastic life. Nevertheless, “beginning” is an attitude as well as a moment, and this book, like Benedict’s Rule, is for beginners.
 

Dr Anne Spalding is a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, and lives in Suffolk.

 

The Monastic Heart: 50 simple practices for a contemplative and fulfilling life
Joan Chittister
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
(978-1-39980-085-3)
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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