Laura Swan struggles with great success to identify and spotlight the many facets of Benedictine spirituality ranging from world engagement to interior repose, from martyrdom to communal reform, and from academia to humble simplicity. She sets the context for each selection in some detail. Such an effort has its inherent pitfalls. Either the contextual section overwhelms the selection, or it does not quite do the excerpt justice, or it achieves a respectable balance. Some of Swann’s chapter introductions tend toward the undesirable margins, but for the most part she has navigated successfully through these challenges and achieved a good balance.
The opening section of Benedictine Tradition reads a little like a slightly impersonal training manual. At the beginning of this topic Swan makes an interesting judgment, that strife in the world was the primary impetus to Benedict’s formation of a community. It is a difficult thing to pinpoint a single motivation, especially from such a temporal distance. Benedictine monasticism’s success at creating bastions of peace in a tumultuous world might consequently cause us to look back into history and read this motivation into the story. The context for the Venerable Bede’s sermons was one area where a smoother connection with the excerpt would have been beneficial, although the problem may have been that the included texts were so meaningful, especially with the depiction of the works of the Holy Spirit in the church, that they were overpowering. A gem that the editor pointed out in Bede’s thought was that intimacy with God was the greater value than spiritual combat. It seems to be a point of wisdom that is lost to many generations.
Peter Damien’s excerpt on Romuald of Ravenna reads more like a history than a spirituality, but the inclusion of “history” in the subtitle of the work under consideration gives this some justification. The introduction to Anselm of Canterbury is one that sets the tone well for the selected reading which in turn was well chosen as it places first emphasis on his deep longing for God rather than his logically astute insights. A section of Bernard of Clairvaux’s homilies on “The Song of Songs” continues Anselm’s theme of desire but ties it further into a recognition of the one desired. Hildegaard of Bingen’s excerpt from her “Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations,” expressed the depth of her mystical insight transposed into a psalm-like format that would make the most sense to those who share a sense for the scripturally threaded medieval perspective on reality. Gertrude the Great of Hefta reflects the spiritual anguish that so many spiritual seekers experience; she links the anguish with hope. It is to Swan’s credit that she presents this spiritual master's work to a broader audience.
The passages from Dame Gertrude More were not the easiest to follow, but her point seemed clearly made that, in consonance with Anselm, intimacy with God was a more worthy spiritual pursuit than mastering a series of intellectual exercises. Blessed Columba Marmion carries on the theme of longing in his excerpt. His mystical experience is depicted in a straight-forward but beautiful manner that makes such experiencing seem enticing. RaÏssa Maritain is appreciated for her development of imaginative techniques for mystical prayer along with her insistence that the goal lies well beyond these. While she is very interested in a spirituality of relationship, Bede Griffiths is more interested in inter-relationship, drawing on the imagery and philosophies he discovered during his life in India. One might find his reference to the allegorical nature of life moving. He found that “everything has meaning only in reference to something beyond” (91). It was a sign of his sweeping insight that he was able to see such connections reaching across religious traditions without demeaning these traditions or their integrity.
Annie Dillard once suggested that to write well one must write as if one were on the verge of death. Her contention is sadly but gracefully born out in the passages from the Trappist Martyrs of Tibhirine. In particular the words immortalized by Father Christian gift us with one of the most profound acts of forgiveness. It would be hard for anything following such an exposition to be attention holding, so the selection on the Chant tradition was well placed, in spite of the clear importance that Swan shows chant to have had in the history of monasticism. Such spacing allows the selection from the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses to stand in its own light. The insights shared in this piece on obedience have even further implications than those for the Benedictine community, especially the outspoken contention that the community is enroute to God together. This oftentimes obscured communal progression to salvation (which does not pre-suppose universal salvation) is a feature of Catholicism which many of my non-Catholic Christian students have had difficulty grasping. Once they do, they seem to have a new appreciation for the Catholic way and tradition. The authors of this selection should be commended by the wider church for how well they model and reflect this facet.
Swan’s Afterword nicely points out new and intriguing directions where the earlier expressed spirituality is finding new ways to flourish. While the selection of sources for Benedictine Spirituality was interesting, it may have been a little too broad as an inspirational book, which it does not purport to be. There was a careful effort to align the contents with key moments in Benedictine tradition, as necessitated by the nature of such a history-bound series. Swan’s book would be a decent component to a course in comparative spiritualities if it is used in conjunction with two or more similar volumes from other traditions. A follow-up book focusing on contemporary Benedictine spiritual writings would be an added contribution to the study of Spirituality.