Reviewed by Raymond STUDZINSKI, OSB , The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC 20064
The popularity of recent books such as The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris gives testimony to a perduring fascination with monasticism by people whose life circumstances are sometimes far from monastic. In light of this current, but long standing interest, the reappearance of Basil Pennington's A Place Apart, first published in 1983, makes good sense. For in his work Pennington instructs people attracted to monasticism and monastic spirituality in how they might incorporate elements of that life into their busy and demanding schedules. In this edition, Pennington, writing now from a monastery in the People's Republic of China, welcomes new readers. He notes the relevance of the work for a different cultural context such as China and for a world no longer locked in a cold war but still beset by rivalries and painful conflicts.
The original work had its genesis in the frequent talks and discussions which Pennington had with inquirers who came to the monastery at Spencer, Massachusetts. They came for a closer look at monastic life as they discerned their own callings. The focus in those conversations and in the present volume was and is on the values that are lived out in the monastery and on how those same values might be realized in other settings. The goal is to suggest practices that can bring about the transformation envisioned as the end of monastic and Christian life. Numerous requests for written suggestions about incorporating monastic practices into daily life led Pennington to write up the main points of those earlier discussions. He covers a broad range of practices including solitude, silence, fasting, reading, work, and confession.
The "place apart" indicated in the title is not only the environs of a monastery but also the space a person creates in his or her life by going apart for time alone. A space such as a room or corner of a room is very helpful, but certainly the cell in one's heart can be quite sufficient. The point is to establish a practice of drawing apart to have deeper communion with God. Pennington recognizes that the when, where, and how of this practice will vary from individual to individual. But the practice, however it is done, will make a difference.
Some monastic practices fit less easily into the structure of busy people's lives. Watching, the practice of praying in the night while the world sleeps, is more of a challenge to those who have demanding schedules. Still, "Even a little watching done regularly not only reveals its own significance, but has an effect on one's whole life" (p. 22). Likewise, the practice of silence may be difficult to work into the context of normal family life. Perhaps, some families would not be as amenable to incorporating certain hours for silence as Pennington seems to suggest. However, finding times to be still and to hear our deeper selves, God, and others ultimately enriches communication.
The monastic custom of fasting is seen as an attitude in life which serves to increase hunger for God and freedom. It leads to gratitude and a fuller appreciation of what we have. In this context Pennington discusses the modern concern for dieting. He sees it as related to fasting and as potentially bringing about freedom just as does fasting.
The section on reading (lectio), while brief, gets to the heart of the matter and clearly differentiates lectio, with its goal of bringing us into communion with God, from study and spiritual reading. The sources for lectio are many--scripture texts, art, all of creation. As Pennington notes, lectio designates a whole spiritual program which includes meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The most important point of this program is recognizing that God speaks to us and then listening and responding to God. Regularly taking up the scriptures for a short space would introduce this transformative practice into even very busy lives.
This little book is filled with excellent suggestions on how to bring the serenity and peace offered by a monastery into the hustle and bustle of demanding familial and professional careers. In many ways it will whet appetities for more of the wisdom to be found in the monastic tradition. Pennington has helpfully appended a list of suggested readings including both primary sources, commentaries, and contemporary reflections and applications. Readers will come away sensing that these "monastic" practices are really for all Christians.