IN 1976, Basil Hume, a Benedictine monk, was called from the cloister to be the Archbishop of Westminster and a year later published Searching for God, a collection of his writings and talks given to the monks when he was the Abbot of Ampleforth. It became a spiritual bestseller.
Now, 45 years later, Erik Varden, a Cistercian monk, called from the cloister to be the Bishop of Trondheim, has published Entering the Twofold Mystery, comprising talks, articles, and sermons that he gave to the monks when he was the Abbot of Mount St Bernard. I have little doubt that this will also become a spiritual bestseller, following on from his previous much acclaimed book, The Shattering of Loneliness.
Entering the Twofold Mystery is subtitled On Christian conversion, and it begins with describing the author’s “conversion” experience that he had while doing post-doctoral research in Paris — a conversion that led him to the monastic life. In 2002, he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Mount St Bernard, where, as abbot, he oversaw the Trappist community’s move from milk production to beer-making. He is also a musician and an authority on Gregorian chant. In 2019, he was called to be the Bishop of Trondheim in his native Norway.
The first part of the book looks at what makes a monk. Varden explores the depth of teaching in the Rule of St Benedict, in which the vows are viewed as tools leading to constant conversion and spiritual growth.
The second part of the book provides homilies and talks that take readers through the liturgical year. Both parts provide profound spiritual and theological insights, and are rooted in scripture, tradition, literature, and inspiring religious figures. Varden’s scholarship permeates his writings, as does his monastic approach to scripture. Here, it feels that the texts have been the focus of prayer, not just study.
The vocation of a monk is primarily to respond to the call to live the gospel and to “prefer nothing to Christ”. Such a vocation requires learning to listen, to embrace silence, to live simply and peaceably, to honour creation, to practise hospitality, and to learn contemplation. Many other Christians will identify with these aims, and will discover that Varden’s wise words apply to them as well as to the monks for whom they were originally intended.
The Rule of St Benedict describes what builds and what destroys communities. The same principles apply to parish and even family life, as much as to a monastery. The monastic tradition has often enriched the wider Church and inspired new vocations and ways of living, as the growth in “new monasticism” bears witness.
As Abbot of Mount St Bernard, Varden had a growing reputation as a preacher, spiritual director, and lecturer. Now that he is based in Norway, it is good that we are still able to benefit from his spiritual and scholarly teaching, and his warmth and humanity in “entering the twofold mystery”, which Varden himself describes as: “No life is untouched by pain. No life is unillumined by joy.”
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.
Entering the Twofold Mystery
Church House Bookshop £12.99
Read an edited extract from the book here
Join the online launch next Wednesday, 26 January, 6.30-7.30 p.m., with Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley, hosted by Church House Bookshop in association with Bloomsbury.