Centuries of Holiness is not the kind of book one reads over a weekend. One can, of course, but that would not do justice to the achievement of its author. What Valantasis has done is that to which the subtitle points. He has digested the spiritual wisdom of the ancient monastic and mystical traditions and presented it to contemporary religious seekers in such a way that it is pleasantly palatable and genuinely helpful.
The book is divided into three parts: 1) The Introduction; 2) 100 insightful and practical reflections, which Valantasis identifies as “centuries”, and 3) a Table of Suggested Daily Readings. The Introduction is essential to a fuller appreciation of the book’s other two parts; theoretically, part two could be read independently of both parts one and three, but its value is clearly enhanced by them; part three would be unintelligible without part two, yet can add to the usefulness of part two.
In the first sentences of the first paragraph of The Introduction, Valantasis delineates the book’s intended audience: “This book is for those who yearn for a spiritual life that has depth and intellectual challenge. It is a thinking-person’s guide to the religious life written for the smart seeker who yearns for a mind, body and spirit fully attuned to God, fully alive, fully enfleshed, fully interactive with other believing people from a wide variety of religions, fully connected to the wider world in which humans live, fully engaged with the physical universe, fully committed to service to the poor and disenfranchised of the world, and, of course, fully post modern” (p. 1). This reviewer would like to identify herself as a member of such an audience, and has indeed found the book immensely helpful.
The body of the monograph, the content of which is one hundred brief essays, is intended to make available the spiritual traditions of the past, not just the ancient texts of spirituality to be appropriated intellectually but the formative practices, the spiritual arts, so to speak, that have contributed over generations, over centuries, to the formation of holy people. Noting that “creative and energetic thinking has been considered a spiritual discipline through most of the history of Christianity,” and that “Mind and experience, thinking and engagement, were connected practices leading to the sanctification and divinization of the person” (p. 28), Valantasis asserts that the centuries contained in his monograph “were written to be performed in the mind.” What Valantasis intends is that the centuries “tease the mind into contemplation; into considering positions that challenge current orthodoxies and perspectives; into exploring the mystery of the physical universe as an arena for divine revelation; into a direct experience of God that confounds the categories; and in the end, into sanctification and holiness” (p. 28). The essays’ titles are descriptive of the ideas they contain, e.g., “Conversion…,” “Sanctification…,” “The Memory of God…,” “Living in the Present…,” “Virtues…,” “Self-Examination…”
What Valantasis does not do is order the essays, provide a roadmap or a “how to” set of directives in any rigid way. Rather, he allows the individual to pick and choose, to listen and reflect, to adapt and integrate the various insights as they make sense within the context of individual reader’s own life. The reviewer confesses to having taken the book very seriously and, consequently, to have delayed much too long in writing this review.
The third part of the book contains a table that connects centuries to days of the Liturgical Calendar. The list provides a century for each day of the four weeks of Advent, for Christmas Eve and Christmas, for each of the forty days of Lent, for each day of the seven weeks of Eastertide and for Pentecost. The monograph concludes with recommended centuries for a 3-day and a 7-day retreat. This reviewer has read the list that contains the descriptive titles of the suggested century for each liturgical feast. I have not, however, gone back to read each century within the suggested liturgical context. As a Biblicist I am partly interested in seeing the relationship of the scriptural texts for the day and the suggested century. But I am only partially interested since I believe that Valantasis’s efforts have already been successful. I wish I had read the book before I taught a seminar, “Buried Treasure,” my own meager effort to bring the ancient spiritual tradition and practice to first year college students at Holy Cross.