Bernard Olivera served with distinction as abbot general of the Trappists (OCSO) from 1990 until his retirement in 2008. Spiritual renewal according to the culture of a specific place and time was an overarching theme of his leadership.
This book is best seen as a series of reflections on the monastic experience of the Christian mystery with specific attention to a variety of themes, including life’s purpose, mysticism, baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, joy, sweetness, kindness, compunction, desire, spousal relationship, and unity of spirit. The degree of monastic authenticity will depend on how well “… monks and nuns are listening sensitively to the culture and to the deepest needs of the persons with whom they live.” (p. 129) Olivera, however, views mysticism as a foundational experience also enjoyed by laity and across religious lines.
In foreword, Santiago Fidel Ordonez sets up the book very well by showing how the book affirms that “personal mystical experience is not only the key to an adequate renewal of monastic life today, but also—and above all—the foundation, the originating point, of any and all religion or religious tradition.” (p. xi) This renewal can address the modern challenges of individualism, hyperactivity, and superficiality.
Olivera suggests that many people in our contemporary world are “tired of ideologies, moralism, dogmatism, ritualism, and the like” and “thirst for transcendent mystery.” (p. 121). Mystical experience, most explicitly seen in the monastic context but not limited to that, can be an effective response to modern challenges and a potent source of renewal. Mysticism is good for all of humanity. Ironically, we are humanized by being made more divine from the inside out.
Olivera adeptly weaves into his meditations the reflections from a variety of mystics, including Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and William of Saint-Thierry.
Although it can perhaps be excused by the informal, meditative style of the book, there are times when it would have been helpful for the author to carefully define, in a straightforward manner, some of the book’s key terms, such as mystery and mystical experience.
This book can be added to a long list of helpful guides to the mystical life produced by the deep silence of the Trappist experience.