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Word and Spirit: A Monastic Review, 14-1992, Aspects of Monasticism in America.

These are three very different books on vowed religious life, each written from a different perspective in time.

First, the future. Christian Brother Louis DeThomasis, president and professor of interdisciplinary studies at St. Mary's College of Minnesota, has developed one of the most innovative approaches to analyzing challenges to the viability of religious life and to essaying what it will take to make it flourish in the future.

Well-illustrated with diagrams and flowcharts, this slim volume calls for nothing less than a complete rethinking of religious life in the world. Basing his arguments on the human dynamics that underpin society and its institutions, DeThomasis pinpoints the causes of the breakdown of the old paradigm and insists that we must totally abandon the old models of religious life and replace them with something completely new. But what should the new paradigm be?

Here the author advances a new "transformal" approach. He focuses on seven key issues, devoting a chapter to each. First, the organization's purpose must be conceived in terms of world transformation rather than traditional ministry or apostolate. Second, control or direction must be exercised in terms of the needs of both the ministers and those ministered to rather than the survival of the organization.

Third, there must be a new "symbiotic" style of management to replace the old bureaucratic approach. Fourth, performance results need to be measured in terms of social justice rather than the ritual repetition of the past. Fifth, real leadership must replace mere administration.

Sixth, there must be more intelligent reliance on human potential rather than pious appeals to divine providence. And finally, there must be a greater use of the adaptive power of imagination to replace a rule-driven approach.

Perhaps a good example of what DeThomasis has in mind, even if in a somewhat paradoxical manner, can be seen in Sister Joan Chittister's new book. If it at first appears to be tied to the remote past, it is done in a way very much concerned with the present. This series of reflections on the 73 short chapters of St. Benedict's classic rule has been subdivided by Chittister into a series of meditations for each day over a period of three months, similar to the way the rule is read and reread in houses following the Benedictine tradition.

But anyone who thinks this commentary is intended only for monastics should take another look. Chittister has filled her book not only with her own reflections but with complimentary insights drawn from Taoist, Sufi, Zen, Hindu and even Hasidic sources. The result: something of a little compendium of wisdom literature that is applicable to all kinds of situations in daily life. This is not the kind of spiritual reading meant to promote "visions" or hothouse piety of any sort. This is about Christian life as it is lived in community

This not just in religious communities, but in the community of the family and the world community at large. It would be a mistake for anyone concerned with Christian spirituality in the world today to overlook this book.

Finally, a look at the recent past. The 14th annual edition of Word and Spirit: A Monastic Review emphasizes the historical in its 1992 theme of "Aspects of Monasticism in America." Fittingly, it begins by marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage with a poem about him by Thomas Merton. Then follows an article by Rene Kollar, OSB, about the failed efforts of Bishop John Carroll to bring English Benedictines to western Pennsylvania because of the lamentable infighting that was splitting the reemerging Church of England at the time, a failure remedied only in the 1840s with the successful foundation of St. Vincent's Abbey in Latrobe by monks from Bavaria.

Next, Carmelite Mary Joseph Norweb, OCD, relates for us the story of the foundation of the first convent of nuns in the original 13 states (in Port Tobacco, Md.) by a handful of American-born Carmelites who, up to that time, bad to leave their homeland to take the veil. Learning their story, which is reconstructed from original documents and travel diaries, we are disappointed to learn that these first American Carmelites for a short time actually owned a few slaves.

Then Basil Pennington, OCSO, capsulizes the history of the Trappists in America, particularly their struggles to maintain the contemplative charism amidst the changes initiated by Vatican II.

And so this collection of 11 articles goes on, telling us about the first Benedictine nuns and the first Dominican sisters in the United States and recounting the intrepid and sometimes rather eccentric Benedictine missionaries in the Dakotas -- one of whom, Vincent Wehrle, after becoming the first bishop of Bismarck, kept chickens in his episcopal attic.

We also are told the rather curious story of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, the first and last foundation in the United States to ever be canonically designated as an 'abbey of no diocese' or really an abbey that was its own diocese unto itself -- something that never went very well with those non-Benedictine priests who had to serve under the abbot's direction.

Near the end there is a beautiful assessment of the effect that Thomas Merton had on monastic life in the United States and a closing piece on monastic roots that includes an extensive bibliography for those most concerned with the formation of future monks and nuns. This is a very worthwhile collection, and if I have emphasized a bit of the unusual, it proves, if nothing else, that even reading history need not be boring.

All in all, comparing these three books, I'd say that if DeThomasis' imagination could be applied to the church as a whole, especially in its efforts to find new vocations to the diocesan priesthood as well as to religious life, the results could be truly revolutionary.

On the other hand, his putdown of the monastic model of religious life, with its rule-centered approach, seems delightfully undercut by Chittister's reinterpretation of the rule of Benedict for modem times. And the Word and Spirit collection of articles on monastic history in the United States shows that even traditional religious life, despite its occasional lapses into the sins of society, can, given a real challenge, prove surprisingly adaptable and resourceful, even "symbiotic" in a way. How else to explain keeling chickens in your attic?
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Author:Kropf, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 5, 1993
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