2016 books round-up

booksmontage2016

It’s January, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during the previous year (previous years: 2013 | 2014 | 2015). As usual, these are categorised as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before.

The overall picture can be seen from these charts. First, by category:

category

Second, by format/source (with “other” shown in pale blue):

format

In other words, while I was hitting the library pretty hard, it was mostly for reading comic books.

Fiction

This was another good year for reading fiction (after the shocker in 2014 when I read only ten novels). One intentional theme throughout the year was reading novels by women, including three major sequences: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Of the three, my favourite was the Gilead trilogy, and of those I’ve singled out Lila as one of my two favourite novels of the year.

My other favourite for the year is Luther Blissett’s astonishing Reformation-era historical novel, Q. But pretty much all the listed books are worth reading. Other particular highlights include Ali Smith’s lovely, life-affirming novella Girl Meets Boy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary novel the Norman Conquest, Wake, written in a form of cod Anglo-Saxon.

Non-fiction

The usual mishmash under this category. Edward Ross’s Filmish, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are all good enough to get listed here rather than under graphic novels. The Silk Roads is a fascinating (even if, towards the end, slightly over-cooked) presentation of a part of the world, and eras of history, that are too obscure for most of us. The implosion of the Labour party and the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader sent me scurrying back to Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Very hard to select two favourites from this, so in the interests of balance I’ve gone for two works of English history from sharply contrasting political viewpoints: Robert Tombs’ affably magisterial history of the English people, and Selina Todd’s account of the twentieth century working class, combining vivid eyewitness testimony with a sharp political analysis, held together by an effective use of the life of pools winner Viv “spend, spend, spend!” Nicholson as a framing device.

Theology

My main aim this year was to read more Lutheran theology. For the first half of the year, I made a reasonably good effort at this, with a particular focus on Luther’s theology of the “captive will” (see the books by Joshua Miller, Oswald Bayer and Gerhard Forde, as well as Luther’s own Bondage of the Will).

Around September, though, there was a change of direction, as I realised that, with only one or two exceptions, it had been years – well over a decade, in fact – since I’d read books that engage directly with the Bible, whether as introductions or commentaries. Originally I intended this to be my 2017 reading focus, but I soon realised I wanted to start right away. I also switched Bible reading plan to one that aims at reading the whole Bible systematically over the course of a year.

The nature of the project is summarised by the title of Marcus Borg’s flawed but stimulating book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: specifically, reading with an openness to mainstream scholarly understandings of the biblical books’ content, origins and authorship. Above all else, this was prompted by reading an essay by Peter Enns in which Enns describes a colleague who was shocked to discover how far scholarship was from what he’d been taught at his evangelical college. He asked his former professor why this was, only to be told:

Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.

Upon reading that, I realised I no longer wanted to be protected from “this information” – while at the same time wanting to hold on to the Bible as Christian scripture. Hence a mixture of books that are strongly historically-critical in their approach (such as Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament) and writers such as Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis who, without rejecting the insights of biblical criticism, focus on how the Bible as we have received it, in all its plurality, reveals God to us.

This is another category from which it’s difficult to pick favourites, so I’ve selected one from each of the year’s main foci: Joshua Miller’s Hanging by a Promise, a profound and thought-provoking account of God’s hiddenness, and Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God, not least for her brilliant chapters on Old Testament wisdom literature.

Other

As will be seen from the charts at the start, this category is mostly the story of me and my library card attacking Southwark’s large collection of comic books and graphic novels. It’s also the story of having finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer earlier in the year and making a start on the “season 8” series of comic books (though deciding that I’d had enough of a good thing after four volumes). The one non-comic book is Mallory Ortberg’s splendid literary parody, Texts from Jane Eyre.

Favourites from this category, again chosen fairly arbitrarily: Dan Dare, for the retro nostalgia but also the superb artwork (which has dated less badly than the politics and gender relations), and Evan Dahm’s Kickstarter-funded Vattu series, also mostly on visual grounds.

Plans for 2017

No hard-and-fast plans, but some overall aims:

  • continue reading “books about the Bible”
  • read more theology by women (recommendations are warmly invited)
  • dip my toe into the vast and deep waters that are Karl Barth
  • make more headway on my to-read shelves than I managed this year…
  • more poetry, War & Peace, “and a pony”…
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Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.

2014: the year of big books

British Library Big Books bagIt’s the end of the year, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during 2014 (see 2013’s entry).

Here are the books I’ve completed during 2014, broken down into categories (fiction, non-fiction, theology) and listed in order of completion. I’ve also identified my two favourite books from each category. Each title links to my comments about the book on Tumblr. Books marked with a * are books I’d read before.

Fiction 

Favourites: Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End.

Currently reading: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

Comments: I’ve not read a huge number of novels this year – though arguably Parade’s End should count as four, and Daniel Deronda is even longer than Ford’s tetralogy. Greatly enjoyed finishing off the Smiley trilogy (especially Smiley’s People). My clear favourite for the year, though, was Daniel Deronda, which is (as I said at the time) probably in the top three novels I’ve ever read.

Looking ahead: Having only just broken into double figures this year, I must try to read more novels next year. My wife has bought me Pat Barker’s Regeneration (having been recommending it to me for ages), so maybe I’ll end up doing the whole trilogy. I also have War and Peace sitting on my Kindle…

Non-fiction 

Favourites: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Shock of the New.

Comments: A very satisfying set of books. Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Persian Fire were both hugely enjoyable works of ancient history. Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace is, to my mind, the definitive book on the underlying causes of the First World War. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory is a remarkable book, and was only narrowly pipped to the post by Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New.

Clear winner, though, is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has, of course, been widely read and commented on, with people arguing strongly for and against his thesis. As for me, I feel similarly to the FT’s literary editor (£):

No one is going to turn to the literary editor for a decisive ruling on all of this but it seems fair to conclude that, while Piketty may not have settled the inequality debate, he has taken it into new territory: his opponents will be obliged to follow.

But the real impact for me was not Piketty’s analysis of the current position or his predictions for the future, but the insights his book provides into the nature of wealth, and its changing distribution, in the past: especially the dominance of income from capital until the First World War and its (temporary?) eclipse by income from labour during the mid-twentieth century. This has illuminated my reading of books as diverse as Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End and The War That Ended Peace.

Looking ahead: The biggest book currently looming on my to-read shelf is David Hackett Fischer’s “magisterial” (read: enormous) Albion’s Seed. And who knows: maybe 2014 will be the year I finally get round to reading E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I’m also hoping to read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain – described by Tom Holland as the Christian equivalent of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See.

Theology/spirituality

Favourites: Lutheran Theology, God’s Philosophers.

Currently reading: Being Christian, by Rowan Williams.

Comments: A tricky one, this. There’s no doubt which was my favourite theology book this year: Steven Paulson’s Lutheran Theology blew my mind and made me fall in love all over again with, well, Lutheran theology – to an extent that rather overshadows the rather different material I’d been reading for the rest of the year. However, James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers deserves a mention, not least because its thesis – that medieval science was far more sophisticated than is generally assumed, and indeed was foundational to modern science – is one that needs constant repetition in order to counteract the Protestant and Enlightenment propaganda that still governs most people’s assumptions on the subject.

This is also the one category in which my favourite belies the title to this post, with Steven Paulson coming in at a svelte 272 pages (plus notes). James Hannam clocks up a respectable 448 pages, but this still falls short of Thomas Piketty (577 pages plus lots of notes), Parade’s End and Daniel Deronda (each more than 800 pages). The Shock of the New is a mere 412 pages, but they’re big and glossy, so the book ends up weighing an impressive 1.66 kg.

Looking ahead: Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Reinterpretation is one I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into. I may also give Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil a go. Basically the plan (“if you want to make God laugh…”) is to read more Lutheran theology this year than has been the case until recently.

Other

I could have included graphic novels in the fiction list, but I’m too much of a snob:

It feels insulting to bury “poetry” under “other”, but poetry books are not always the sort that you read from start to finish. Hence a “books completed” list leaves most of the poetry I’ve read (e.g. Geoffrey Hill and Paul Celan) unrecorded. But here goes, anyway:

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 21,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 8 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Books! Books! And additional books! (2013 edition)

2013 recommended booksIt must be the end of the year, because here’s one of those navel-gazing, end-of-year-list blog posts.

These are the books I completed during 2013, broken down into three categories (fiction, non-fiction other than theology, and theology), and listed within each category in approximate order of completion. I’ve also identified the two books from each category that I would particularly recommend. Each book title links to my comments (if any) on the book as posted on my Tumblr.

Novels/fiction: 

Recommendations: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Currently reading: Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin.

Comments: Given that I tend to read more non-fiction that fiction, this has been a pretty good year by my standards. In particular I finally got round to reading three novels that I’ve been wanting to read (and that my wife has been recommending to me) for ages: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale and Possession. None of them disappointed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is less “literary”, but will stay with me a long time.

Non-fiction/other: 

Recommendations: Cultural Amnesia, My Traitor’s Heart.

Currently reading: God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam.

Comments: Some really good stuff in there. Vanished Kingdoms, The Fatal Shore, Iron Curtain and The Tragedy of Liberation could also have made it into my recommendations. But the standout book of the year for me – the one that has done most to change how I think, I suspect (and hope) permanently – was Clive James’s love letter to humanism, Cultural Amnesia.

Theology:

Recommendations: The Cloister Walk, Unapologetic.

Currently reading: Evangelii Gaudium, by Pope Francis; The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown.

Comments: A bit of a mixed bag, this. I should probably resolve to be a little more focused and disciplined next year (“Good luck with that…”). The first half dozen books reflect the Lutheran/Benedictine crossover that is probably the most accurate location for where my spiritual tent is currently pitched.

Overall, the really big hole this year across all categories is the absence of any poetry. It’s not that I didn’t read any, but that I didn’t “finish” any poetry books. Still, something to rectify next year, perhaps.

Spiritual direction: a cry for help

If anyone makes himself his own master in the spiritual life, he makes himself scholar to a fool. – St Bernard

Having finished English Spirituality, I’ve now moved on to another book by Martin Thornton: Christian Proficiency, which aims to provide a more practical guide to living out the principles of “English spirituality”.

“Proficiency” refers to the spiritual life of “a sound ‘ordinary’ Christian” – one who is neither a beginner in the Christian life, “yet far from perfection”. The framework within which Thornton sees such a Christian engaging in prayer is the threefold “Rule” which he sets out in English Spirituality:

  • Office
  • Mass
  • Private prayer

The last of these is then split into:

  • Mental prayer (such as imaginative or intellectual meditation on the life of Christ or the doctrines of the church)
  • Colloquy (which in turn consists of petition, self-examination and confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and adoration)
  • Recollection (the “practice of the presence of God”, both as specific acts of recollection and as a “habitual” state of the soul)

That may sound like quite a lot to squeeze into one life, and Thornton acknowledges this. His recommended solution consists of two main elements:

  • spiritual direction; and
  • “Rule” (as in following a disciplined, though flexible, “rule of prayer”, rather than following a list of “rules”).

I mentioned a few months ago that I didn’t feel I had a “‘spiritual director’-shaped hole in my life”. I suspected that I was lying (or at least protesting too much) even then, and reading Thornton has made me rethink.

But what is spiritual direction? Thornton is careful to distinguish it from “counselling”, which is usually aimed at addressing specific problems, usually over a finite period of time. Spiritual direction is intended for the ongoing life of the “ordinary” Christian. Similarly, Thornton distinguishes it from individual confession and absolution: while one’s director may also be one’s confessor, this will not always be the case.

Thornton compares spiritual direction to asking for directions from a police officer:

[He] advises us to follow a certain road to get to a certain place, he may give us a choice of routes and point out their respective snags and merits. He does not order us against our will – unless it is a one-way street when it is better for us to follow his direction all the same – nor does he get out of his car and take us there himself. (pp.25f.)

As a result, spiritual direction has nothing to do with “autocracy, ‘priestcraft’, submissiveness, easy ways out, not standing on one’s own feet, interfering with the relation between the soul and God, etc., etc., etc.” – to rehearse some of the usual Protestant arguments against the practice. What it can do is to free us from the burden of having to work everything out for ourselves.

Thornton then turns to the very practical question of how to set about finding a spiritual director and starting to undergo direction. If you are interested in this topic, you’ll want to read this section of the book in full, but here is a brief summary:

  1. “The Church gives you absolute freedom of choice as to who your director shall be.” If you want it to be your parish priest or pastor, and they are the right person for the job (not all are), then all well and good. But if not, you are free to choose someone else.
  2. The priority should be to find a director who is competent – that is, who has “a working knowledge of ascetical and moral theology supported by a regular life of prayer”.
  3. If you find it difficult to identify a potential director, ask your Christian friends (see the end of this post!), or write to your bishop. “You can be assured that you are not ‘troubling’ anyone with something trivial,” Thornton reassures us, pointing out that such a request will likely make a pleasant change from the average bishop’s usual postbag.
  4. Once you have found a guide, use them. Thornton compares this to your dentist, where you will have regular periodic checkups, but can also call on them when a specific problem comes up (without ringing them for every slight twinge).
  5. Don’t be afraid if you find it difficult to talk about spiritual things. A large part of the director’s job is to draw out from you what they need, just as a doctor can diagnose you even if all you can say is “I have a pain – here”.
  6. Don’t be afraid to discontinue with a given director if the relationship doesn’t work or has run its course, though equally avoid chopping and changing.
  7. Tell your pastor that you are receiving spiritual direction (assuming they are not already your director!).
  8. Finally, and importantly: don’t leave it till you are facing a crisis. As Thornton points out, “if you are on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, it is a bit late to learn to swim” (fuller quotation here – worth reading). If possible, the time to commence direction is when things are generally going well for you.

All this brings us to the real purpose of this post. My wife and I are both interested in investigating spiritual direction (in the sense described by Thornton) further, but have no idea where to begin. It’s not something that really exists within the Lutheran tradition, and while we have a huge regard for our pastor, this doesn’t really strike us as his sort of thing.

So we’d welcome any suggestions on where to start looking for a potential spiritual director. Geographically we’d be looking at London/Kent. In terms of temperament, theology and general outlook – and especially bearing in mind Martin Thornton’s description of the role – my expectation is that an Anglo-Catholic or Benedictine director is probably what we’d be happiest with (the Jesuit approach, for example, almost certainly isn’t for us). I’m thinking we’d probably expect to meet up with them (I assume individually rather than as a couple) at say 3- or 6-monthly intervals, and then to be in occasional email contact between times.

If you have any ideas, contact me either via the comments (I’m happy to email you back if you put your email address in the relevant field) or on Twitter.

Update: several people on Twitter have suggested the London Centre for Spirituality, whose website has a section on spiritual direction. From the LCS website, it looks like the people to contact in my neck of the woods are SPIDIR. Thanks to all who have contributed suggestions.

Benedictine adventures with God

Benedictine ingredients - from Please God, Find Me a Husband!One of my favourite books recently has been Simone Lia’s spiritual autobiography in graphic novel form, Please God, Find Me a Husband!

The book describes Ms Lia’s “adventure with God”, which includes several encounters with Benedictine nuns in London, Wales and Australia. In Australia, Sister Hilda gives Lia five “Benedictine ingredients for an adventure with God”.

Since finishing Lia’s book, I’ve been reading various books and articles on Benedictine spirituality (see the list of further reading at the end of this post). Sr Hilda’s five “ingredients” provide a useful framework for outlining some of the things that have struck a chord with me (not least from a Lutheran perspective) from what I’ve read over the past couple of weeks or so.

1 & 2. Scripture and prayer

I’ve combined these headings into one, as to do so lies at the heart of Benedictine spirituality: praying the Scriptures, in both corporate and personal prayer.

Corporate prayer revolves around the Daily Office (or, to use St Benedict’s phrase, the Opus Dei, the “work of God”). As Fr Mark Hargreaves (.doc) puts it:

[O]ur spirituality is essentially liturgical, rather than devotional.

And then this, by Simon Jones, on the centrality of the psalter in the Benedictine “work of God”:

If our minds and hearts are to be transformed by the psalter, then we need to make sure that psalmody plays a central part within our celebration of the Opus Dei. Michael Perham has observed that ‘All too often nowadays psalmody can feel like one of the preliminaries, especially when it has been reduced to a snippet.’ When it came to the psalter, Benedict had no time for snippets, and nor should we. Whatever form of office we use, we should make sure that the recitation of the psalter is given its full and proper place. Even though most oblates will not be able to achieve the 75 psalms a week which the Directory for the Celebration of the Work of God requires, at least one substantial portion of psalmody should be part of our daily diet.

My diet of psalms has been a bit “snippet”-based in recent months. I’m grateful for the prompt to go back to something more substantial.

As for personal prayer, another key Benedictine practice is lectio divina: that is, praying the Scriptures, and in particular doing so around a loose framework of “lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio“. I’ve been trying to develop this in recent months, and have greatly benefited from it, so again I’m grateful for the encouragement to persevere.

3. Works of charity

The Benedictine tradition places a great emphasis on work, especially manual labour. Our everyday work is seen a both an inherent good – a service of God and neighbour by those who bear God’s image – but also as a cross we bear.

This combination of vocation (in the Lutheran sense) and cross-bearing is one that finds strong echoes in the Lutheran tradition. I’m sure that any Benedictine could identify with Luther’s statement that “God milks the cow through the milkmaid”: in other words, that in our everyday work we are “masks of God”, instruments through whom he works to serve our neighbour.

This also ties in with the Benedictine emphasis on stability. There is, and must always be, a place in the church for the “Franciscan” spirit of leaving all behind and striding out into the unknown with Christ. But it’s good that there also remains a place for maintaining a steady, everyday existence of daily service in the places in which we find ourselves, as employees, spouses, parents, carers and so on. That’s both very Benedictine, and very Lutheran.

4. Silence

This is one area that I struggle with! Simone Lia’s nun recommended “half an hour of silence a day”. Another Benedictine writer suggests that “five minutes a day is better than five hours once a month”. Even that is something I find hard to fit into a daily routine of bus, train, open-plan office, train, bus and back home to three children.

This may, however, be a good place to look at another point of affinity between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions. St Benedict’s test for a prospective monk was fourfold: “Does he truly seek God? Is he eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials or opprobria?”

What are the “opprobria” of which Benedict speaks? Fr Mark Hargreaves describes them as follows:

God sends us difficulties—to use no stronger word. He sends us situations that simply should not happen, that are unjust, that are unbearable, etc. Or there is the daily version of this, which is the impossibility of putting up with people, because they are just such a nuisance.

In other words, opprobria are the trials that Martin Luther speaks of as “life under the cross” – whether that’s the Anfechtungen that make a true theologian, or “the possession of the holy cross in the suffering of the saints” which Luther regards as one of the marks of the church. To be a good Benedictine is thus to be a “theologian of the cross” rather than a “theologian of glory”.

It should also be emphasised that the Benedictine way doesn’t seek suffering or extreme asceticism for its own sake. I remember being appalled by the frankly morbid asceticism described (with approval) by J.K. Huysmans in his autobiographical novel En Route, set at the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in the late 19th century. By contrast, St Benedict famously writes in the preface to his Rule that:

With all this in mind what we mean to establish is a school for the Lord’s service. In the guidance we lay down to achieve this we hope to impose nothing harsh or burdensome.

The spirit of the Rule is not that of a gruelling asceticism for its own sake, but of a disciplined, orderly community life. Again, this seems very much in keeping with Luther’s pastoral approach in the Small and Large Catechisms.

5. Spiritual direction

This is another unexplored area for me, and to be honest I don’t feel there is currently a “spiritual director”-shaped hole in my life. Never say never, though, especially where the Holy Spirit is concerned.

That does raise the wider question, though, of where an interest in things Benedictine can lead – given that it is self-evidently not my calling to be a monk. Benedictines have a tradition of oblates – lay people who are attached to a particular monastery while living in the world – and the numbers of oblates has been growing significantly in recent decades (so that oblates now outnumber monks and nuns by some margin). As I understand it, there is no requirement for oblates to be Catholics. However, it would be premature (to say the least) for me to think in those terms.

I have been greatly blessed, however, by the day retreats I’ve attended at Worth Abbey in each of the past two years, and would hope to complete the hat-trick later this year. The affinities that seem to exist (or to be capable of existing) between the Benedictine and Lutheran traditions makes me wonder if this sort of private and informal semi-affiliation with Benedictine ways (the daily office, lectio divina, the occasional retreat, and so on) while remaining in the Lutheran church may help provide the “stable equilibrium” that I’ve been in need of for a while now. We’ll see. I hope, though, that this post will provide some helpful pointers to others who may be interested in exploring the Benedictine tradition for themselves.

Further reading

Any other recommendations are very welcome in the comments…