Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks, by Jon M. Sweeney. Brazos Press (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2009). 160pp., $12.99.
Jon M. Sweeney is not a Catholic, but he is probably closer to monastic Catholicism than many Catholics. In Cloister Talks, Sweeney records conversations he has had with Trappist monks from Conyers, Ga., Trappist, Ky., and Worcester, Mass., and the spiritual wisdom he has garnered from each of them.
In chapter two, Sweeney notes that “God Alone” are “the words in large block letters cut in stone above your head as you enter the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.” Father Luke, a Trappist monk there, tells Sweeney, “Yes, you and God — alone together — have got to find your unique way of getting along, but that doesn’t mean you are getting along on your own.” Father Luke states, “You’re supposed to need other people.”
While making a retreat at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Georgia, Sweeney records a dialogue he had with Father Ambrose. “There is more to me underneath what you see,” the priest tells him. “There is a no-name me that only God knows. When I am alone with God, it is that no-name me, that me without masks and with a true identity, known only by him, that listens.” Then, he adds, “Someday, perhaps only in eternity, I will know who the real me is.”
Sweeney’s conversation with Father Ambrose leads him to realize that “conversion does not happen in a moment; it happens over the course of a lifetime.” In order for conversion to occur, one must spend time in contemplation. “There’s no curriculum or course of study for becoming a contemplative,” writes Sweeney. “All that you need is a life-experience, God’s grace, a teacher or two, and time spent — which is all easier written than done.” However, Sweeney also notes, “The contemplative way of life is available to every person on the planet.”
After sharing a conversation he had with M. Basil Pennington, Sweeney reflects on friendship with God. “If the way to God is a straight line — and we all know that it is not — then there is a place on that line where communion begins to turn into union. . . . an intimate friendship with God feeds every other relationship we have.”
Later, Father Luke adds, “Knowing God intimately isn’t always a comfort. Anyone who has spent long periods of time listening for God’s voice knows that the experience is not often warm or cozy or even inviting. It can be profoundly unsettling.” The rest of the book is filled with more unsettling conversations with Trappist monks and Sweeney’s reflections on prayer, play, work, ambition, life, death and home.
While Mitch Albom is not a monk, his ability to reflect upon his life experiences and narrate the event and the truth he has learned from it rings like a bell in Have a Little Faith (NY: Hyperion, 2009). Known for Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day, all of which have been made into movies, Albom presents a true story of two ministers: one a rabbi, who asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral, and the other a pastor of a run-down church with no heat and a hole in the roof.
Albert Lewis is the rabbi, and Henry Covington is the pastor. This 254-page book is arranged around the four seasons of interviews Albom conducted with Lewis and Covington. In the author’s note, Albom writes, “This story spans eight years. All encounters and conversations are true events, although for purposes of the narrative, the time line has, on a few occasions, been squeezed. . . .”
Albom writes that, while Have a Little Faith is about faith, it is not a guide for any particular faith. “Rather, it is written in hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story.” TP