Copyright by Commonweal Foundation
Books on monasticism are a particular weakness of mine, so it was with pleasure that I read this history of Camaldoli, translated from the Italian. Camaldoli is a favorite tourist destination for, mainly, Italian visitors who love coming to the pristine forests (once maintained by the monks but now part of the state patrimony) to visit the lower church complex with its beautiful monastic pharmacy and to look higher to see the collection of monastic hermitages where the Camaldolese monks, since the eleventh century, have lived. The Camaldolese, in fact, follow the Rule of Saint Benedict but have found enough flexibility in it to allow for both the cenobitic and eremitical life. Vigilucci, himself a Camaldolese monk for over fifty-five years, provides the reader with an historical account of the order from its origins in the reforming impulses of Saints Romuald and Peter Damian through its somewhat tortured institutional history down to the present. Although the Camaldolese have always been a relatively small order they have contributed great luminaries to the church. Among their more illustrious members: Guido of Arezzo, who devised the musical notation (do/re/mi) we still use today; Gratian, whose Decretum became the basis for canon law; the fifteenth-century Renaissance painter, Lorenzo Monaco; the enormously gifted humanist monk Ambrogio Traversari; and Nichlas Malerbi who, in the fifteenth century, published the first full Italian translation of the Bible. The author does not mention it but we might also note that the late Bede Griffiths lived as a Camaldolese monk at his Christian ashram in India. Camaldoli, in short, is a tidy compendium about a religious order that has an almost millennial history in the church. What other religious order can brag of having three of its members named by Dante in the Paradiso (Gratian, Peter Damian, and Romuald)? The subtitle promises both history and spirituality. In truth, we get more of the former and less of the latter. It would have been good to have had more information about actual Camaldolese life today; things as simple as their horarium or, more pertinently, something about the ecumenical and interreligious dimensions of their witness as Christian contemplatives. The book could also use a bibliography (as well as an index!) for further readings. Most of the footnotes cite sources not easily available for the average reader. The worldwise success of a CD of Gregorian music sung by some Benedictine monks from Spain is a phenomenon I find most puzzling: was it a symptom of a new interest in spirituality or another sign of the popularity of New Age religion? I must confess that I find Gregorian music a burden to listen to although a pleasure to sing when the liturgical opportunities afford themselves. Chant, after all, is a musical vehicle best understood in use and not as an aesthetic artifact to be experienced in a passive fashion. Be that as it may, David Steindl-Rast has written a small book which pays a passing tribute to Gregorian music in order to meditate more fully on the liturgical offices sung, mainly, in a monastic setting. He meditates on the traditional hours from vigils to compline, with a concluding chapter on the equally traditional Great Silence which ends the monastic day. It so happens that I read this slight book while staying at a Cistercian monastery following those hours, so the book had a special resonance and context for me. Steindl-Rast uses the hours to make larger points. Nightly vigils allow him to muse over the relationship of night to contemplation, while the morning prayer of lauds is a time of hope as the sun makes its first appearance. The "little" hour of sext at midday triggers a meditation on food and also the temptation to succumb to the "noonday devil" of ennui and boredom (the monastic accedia). This is a book not to be read as a whole; it is better appreciated by reading its chapters at the appropriate hours of the daily cycle. There is a lot of compressed wisdom in these meditations which should provide nourishment for those who pray the hours and might encourage those who do not to at least begin with morning and evening prayer. One interesting source for some of these meditations consists of citations of poems written by Rilke inspired by the monastic office. That was a new discovery for me, so now I can add those poems to those of Auden (Horae Canonicae) and Merton (Hagia Sophia) who, like Eliot in the Quartets, found inspiration in the ancient round of the sevenfold praise of God. Paul Mommaers is well-known in the scholarly world as the leading interpretor of the Flemish medieval mystic, Jan Van Ruusbroec (1298-1381). After some lecture tours in the Far East, Mommaers had the very good idea of comparing the mysticism of Ruusbroec with that of Buddhist mysticism by employing the following method: he would set out as clearly as he could Ruusbroec's vocabulary, thought patterns, and theology in chapters which would alternate, in dialogical fashion, with similar chapters written from the side of Buddhist doctrine and language. Unable to get a Buddhist scholar to undertake the task, he called on Jan Van Bragt, who has spent many years in Japan as a professor at Nanzan University (in Nagoya) with a distinguished publication record on Japanese Buddhism and other studies in Far Eastern religion. I am too inexpert in matters Buddhist to evaluate how accurately Van Bragt makes the Buddhist case. What does seem to be crystal clear, however, is that the (too) many popular attempts to harmonize Buddhist and Christian mysticism will appear slickly facile to anyone who engages this book with seriousness. Readers will soon see, as they follow the dialogue, that the presuppositions of Christian and Buddhist metaphysics are quite different. Christianity's God, from which the whole notion of the doctrines of creation and providence derive, seems antagonistic to the Buddhist insistence on an Absolute as an ultimate nothingness or emptiness into which all differentiated beings eventually dissolve. Our authors face up to these challenges (and similar problems of grace, the meaning of the "I," and the Incarnation) with what appears to this non-expert in matters Buddhist to be fairness and a concern for a correct explication of the matter. I was more interested in Mommaers's exposition of Ruusbroec's mystical theology (one could read those chapters alone and learn much), but it was instructive to read the Buddhist chapters if only to learn how arduous the work of comparative theology can be. Mysticism: Buddhism and Christian is not a book to be read with one eye on the television set. Time and patience are required. This is a serious work of scholarship and commitment to interreligious dialogue; those who work through it will find their efforts repaid in full. It has made me serious about going back again to Ruusbroec's writings (ably translated by James Wiseman in the Paulist "Classics of Western Spirituality") helped by the able exegesis and commentary of Mommaers's fine work here. Beatrice Bruteau's book makes a nice contrast with the Mommaers /Van Bragt volume because her work, based on secondary literature in English and targeted to the more popular market in spirituality, moves swiftly through the Christian encounter with the East, by which Bruteau means not only Buddhism but Hinduism. In a review this short I would not want to comment extensively on the quick elision from Oriental practices to Christian ones which Bruteau sketches, but my suspicion is that scholars in this area would find some of these transitions problematic. I will content myself in outlining what I do think one can "learn" from the East using some of Bruteau's ideas. The first lesson would be on the Eastern insistence on experience as it comes from discipline. God is not an idea or concept to be "thought of," but the center of reality which ought to be experienced. This experience comes from what the Hindu tradition calls yoga, a Sanskrit word which comes to us in English as yoke but which in our religious vocabulary might be better called ascesis - i.e. "training" - a term to be understood in a wide sense. The goal of yoga is to understand the authentic self and in that understandin~ to know the nature of ultimate reality. I have already noted that the problem of the self is understood quite differently in East and West and the difference cannot be simply glossed over. I still think that some of the best writing on the nature of the self is to be found in the opening chapters of Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation. Beatrice Bruteau wants to show that the East has much to teach us and with that thesis I would have no quarrel. What I would point out, however, is that the points of contact between these two traditions are not as simple as a schematic book of this sort would lead us to believe. It is for that reason that Mommaers and Van Bragt is so valuable; it helps us keep in check the somewhat unexamined optimism of comparative books like that of Beatrice Bruteau.