Terrence Kardong begins his preface of this book by recounting his personal struggle over what kind of result this project should yield. In fact, as suggested by the title, this is not a typical scholarly work in which a thesis is proposed, a methodology is set out, and data are presented to support a conclusion. At the same time, Kardong’s own concern, that his work might turn out to be a “coffee-table book,” is far from realized. He successfully walks a delicate line between the exegetical nature of some of his earlier works on the Rule of Benedict and a purely meditative approach that this endeavor could have become. There is a fair amount of reference to the primary sources of the Rule without getting distractingly off the path of each passage under consideration. A good description of his installment for each day might be a “non-binding teaching” on some facet of the Rule. This would be something like a scholarly rumination on the subject. In spite of claiming that the various passages from the Rule lacked a complete context, he took pains to ensure that at least some background was provided for each day’s thoughts. One of the more engaging methods he used to achieve this was the systematic placement of anecdotal snippets from his monastic experience.
In his approach to the Rule it is apparent that Kardong is very sensitive to the strife that exists behind an honest effort of a community to live by its precepts. There is clearly no intent in this book to glorify or sugar-coat the monastic experience under Benedict’s vision. Kardong identifies many of the worst-case scenarios referred to in the Rule, not as a matter of exposé, but to facilitate applying the Rule, as designed, as a means to outlast and overcome the various issues that might confront a community. He is also willing to challenge Benedict on such matters as his overextension of the meaning of a Scriptural passage (e.g., April 25th). This and other challenges to the Rule are more often than not connected with Kardong’s effort to unearth the oftentimes clear but sometimes clouded practicality found therein. He, in turn, brings this pursuit of practicality together with a good insight into sociology and psychology to produce a cultural commentary of sorts that reflects the encounter between an ancient document and a rapidly changing modern culture.
Two areas of change stand out most prominently in Kardong’s selections, those that affect the person and those that affect the church. In his gloss on the Rule he seems to advance a tradition of carefully thought out moderation by toning down some of the harshest requirements. This is based on a necessarily updated view of the human person and his or her essential needs. While he puts great emphasis on the fair and developmentally supportive care of members of the community, he clearly is aware that something that is of great spiritual benefit to an individual can sometimes conflict with the mores of practicality found in popular logic. In regards to the Church, he regularly enters into a critical rethinking of the renewal efforts undertaken at the end of last century. His thoughts along this line indicate that he certainly does not endorse the wholesale abandonment of tradition, nor does he wholeheartedly embrace the novelty of change. He is good at pointing out specific instances where tradition has the most to offer and other cases where change is more beneficial.
While I suspect that Kardong had the brothers and sisters of his order in mind as an audience, anyone who studies religious communities and those who are interested in traditional or non-traditional communal ways of life could find his work engaging.