The Monks of New Skete are the denizens of an Orthodox Christian community located in Cambridge, New York, between Albany and Vermont. Their new book, In the Spirit of Happiness, is a glimpse inside their community and an invitation to consider aspects of life -- including our relationships with God and with other people, our work, the various forms of love, and prayer -- from a monastic perspective. Just as they regularly welcome visitors into the sanctuary of their community for spiritual discourse and guidance in a quiet and meditative atmosphere, the Monks offer readers a similar respite with In the Spirit of Happiness.
While the word "monk" may initially conjure medieval visions of solemn scribes in identical drab robes toiling at illuminating manuscripts and chanting in Latin, or perhaps Sean Connery and Christian Slater prowling around chubby Franciscan brothers with those odd hairdos, the Monks of New Skete offer counsel and guidance that is surprisingly relevant, worldly, and not at all arcane.
Still, the prospect of emulating monks -- who have chosen to dedicate their lives to God and at least seem to live within rigid guidelines of comportment -- may at first seem intimidating and somewhat scary. But In the Spirit of Happiness demonstrates that monks are human, embodying the same frailties and wicked impulses as the rest of us.
Furthermore, although they do adhere to many traditional monastic practices, including waking very early in the morning, participating in frequent daily prayer and meditation sessions, and celibacy, the Monks of New Skete are not exactly cloistered anomalies. They maintain contact with the outside world though frequent visitors and retreatants, and they interact regularly with the local community. A small congregation of lay people attends weekly services on their premises.
The community supports itself by raising purebred German Shepherd dogs and boarding and training dogs of all breeds. They are the authors of two books on this subject, How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend and The Art of Raising a Puppy. These books put forth a holistic approach to raising dogs, viewing the relationship between human and beast as one from which both can learn a great deal and from which the human owner can gather significant self-knowledge.
The topic of In the Spirit of Happiness is somewhat more expansive than those covered in their previous books but follows a parallel vein. The Monks show that the path to happiness is not an easy one. Just as in training dogs, discipline, humility, and attention to the details of the world and to our fellow travelers in it are essential to attaining happiness.
In the Spirit of Happiness may be of special interest to readers who strive to live closer to God but find a frustrating disjunction between their spiritual aspirations and the bustle and babble of family and work life. Perhaps it's punctuated by once-weekly church attendance, where, despite the best intentions, it's often difficult to keep the mind wandering away from God and toward desiring to clock one's fellow man in the row ahead on the back of the neck so he'll continue that annoying rasping cough outside.
Monks are human. The Monks of New Skete don't provide a simple solution to the quandary of the coughing fellow parishioner, and they don't (as one might hope) suggest one should stop attending church because it doesn't seem to be doing one any good. Quite to the contrary, they aver, "Cultivating a communal sense of ritual celebration is the very basis of civilization and the origin of culture." But it is comforting to know that monks, like lay people, sometimes get the urge to whack a brother on the back of the neck for something as simple and human as coughing during a service. Their response is one anyone can emulate, with a little effort: Discipline your mind, and focus on loving God and your fellow worshippers. Evoke the words of Saint Paul: "Be happy always. Pray without ceasing. Be grateful in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."
That's deceptively simple counsel. While they assert that learning about oneself is an essential component of growing closer to God and becoming happy, for the Monks of New Skete to pray without ceasing is not to turn inward, not to tune out all distractions and blather a mantra over and over. This errant path leads to self-indulgence and neglect of those around us and the loss of a sense of place within God's creation. Distractions such as work, family, and our own stumblings are opportunities for growth and opportunities for which to be thankful.
For instance, the Monks show that in the humblest and most degrading tasks, there lies a unique chance for growth and insight into who, at base, we are. Work can be, in fact, a form of prayer. As one example, they cite one of their own, Brother James, who during his early days at New Skete found the task of cleaning the boarding kennel repugnant. Rather than rebelling against his lot, or grimly gritting his teeth and getting it done as quickly as possible, he chose to treat the chore as a means of confronting his self-centeredness, anger, and lack of generosity. In this way, cleaning the kennels became a tool for meditation. Eventually, instead of resenting the barking dogs as he did initially, he came to hear their howls as a reminder of his own desire for freedom. He began to look forward to the opportunity for self-examination the once arduous work of cleaning afforded him.
As another example, the Monks recount the story of a middle-aged lawyer who came to their community on a retreat. He was frustrated by his job, which involved work on messy divorce cases that made him feel "in league with the devil." Yet quitting was not an option, as his five children depended on him for support, and he had to pay off the mortgage on his house. The monks do not provide an easy answer to his dilemma, but they do put it in an existential perspective:
He failed to perceive that he was the one who let his work tyrannize him, that he was the one who failed to integrate his legal work and his spiritual practice.... He alone made the decision to use unethical means, and if he really considered the matter, ultimately this didn't serve either his clients or himself.
The Monks do not pull punches, and they do not imply that the spiritual journey they espouse is an easy one. Rather, its inherent difficulties are what make the journey worthwhile.
The Monks present another compelling means of attaining a more fulfilling life and relationship to God in their explanation of the practice of lectito divina, or sacred reading. This is a variety of meditation that takes the form of reading the Psalms and other Holy Scriptures. In principle, lectito divina is simple and can be practiced by anyone who can read and apply some discipline, and at the same time an open heart (in the sense of "heart" as the core of human emotion, appetite, and intelligence), to digesting short passages of scripture. The monks show how, practiced daily, this simple technique can lead to wisdom and insight.
The Monks write in a refreshing, lucid, and down-to-earth prose style. They are less apt to provide dogmatic sermons than dialogues and careful examinations of specific spiritual quandaries and quests. A large portion of the text, in fact, takes the form of reconstructions of actual conversations between the Monks and retreatants and other lay people who have spent time in their community, as well as instructive anecdotes from the lives of the Monks themselves that shed light on their own ongoing quests for self-knowledge and closeness to God.
A thread interwoven throughout the text, and set out in italicized sections, is the narration of the spiritual journey of the Seeker, whom readers first encounter when he comes to New Skete after an exchange of letters with the spiritual head of the community, Father Laurence. The Seeker eventually becomes a Monk of New Skete himself, and his story encapsulates the monastic journey.
The Seeker's narrative of ever increasing self-knowledge and closeness to God provides insights into monastic life and shows how its guiding principles can be applied to spiritual lay people who aspire to a similar path outside of a monastic community.
Known for their popular dog-training books (How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend, etc.), the monks of New Skete are a contemporary religious community in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The Cambridge, N.Y., group supports itself through farming and breeding German shepherds (hence the dog books), among other enterprises. Writing in unison, the monks articulate the principles of their monasticism and spiritual practices. The monks believe that "the world itself is a cloister" and that all humans are entitled to happiness, which they define as a "deep and lasting interior peace... [that] comes only with the struggle to search out and accept the will of God in our lives." Readers expecting the standard primer on simple living should be forewarned that this work, while luminous at times, is also profound and challenging. Wary of the current vogue for individualistic spirituality, the monks advocate learning by following a teacher, meditating, reading and reflecting on Scripture, praying silently and embracing discipline. The value of liturgical worship and community are beautifully and movingly portrayed. The monks depict their beliefs with remarkable depth and certainty, but the use of dialogue between a composite "Seeker" of wisdom and Father Laurence, their abbot, and other Brothers occasionally seems contrived and didactic. The book includes a brief history of monasticism from biblical times, the most fascinating story being the formation of the New Skete community. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Little, Brown and Company
January 02, 2001
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