07 Mar The Universal Monk – Book Review
The Universal Monk:
The Way of the New Monastics
John Michael Talbot
Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011
231 pages, $19.95, paper
Reviewed by Douglas S. Hardy
Professor of Spiritual Formation
Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program
Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO
Amid the many books published in recent years on the relevance and application of monasticism to contemporary Christian life, this book is noteworthy on two accounts.
First is the uniqueness of the author. You may recognize his name, as I did, from the late twentieth-century contemporary Christian music scene. John Michael Talbot, while performing with the 1970s rock group, Mason Proffit, had a spiritual awakening, began a serious study of the world’s religions, experienced a radical conversion to Christ, joined the Jesus Movement, eventually became a Roman Catholic, and began singing and recording songs of worship and meditation with a broad appeal to Protestants as well as Catholics. In 1978 he sold his possessions and joined a secular Franciscan order. Four years later, his spiritual father encouraged him to establish a new community and pursue his music ministry, which he did on land he had title to in Arkansas, naming it “The Little Portion Hermitage”.
The second noteworthy thing about this book is the uniqueness of the monastic community it describes. The “Brothers and Sisters of Charity”, officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, are what Talbot refers to as an “integrated” monastic community—celibate men, celibate women, singles who are free to marry, and families all living together under common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, “but in a way proper to their state of life.” (223) In addition to this core group of about forty, there are about five hundred “domestics” associated with the community—people around the world who live in their own homes, but affiliate with the community through commitment to spiritual disciplines appropriate to a non-monastic. Talbot has served as the founder, minister general, and spiritual father of this integrated community for over twenty-five years and it is out of this experience that he writes.
The format of the book is atypical in that the chapters are not numbered, nor do they seem to be ordered with an overall logic. Each reads like a brief mediation (6-10 pages in length) on a topic pertinent to monastic vision and vocation. At a most basic level, then, this book serves well as a primer on the broad subject of Christian monasticism. In a very readable, yet thought-provoking style, Talbot introduces the reader to a brief history of the development of classical monasticism in the Eastern deserts of the third and fourth centuries and the flowering of Western monasticism via St. Benedict and the later mendicant (or missionary) orders. Chapters such as “What is a Monk?”, “Kinds of Monks, Monasteries, and Seekers”, “Solitude and Monos”, “Silence and Speech”, “Stillness and Ministry”, “Meditation”, “Lectio Divina”, “Common Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours”, “Obedience”, “Chastity”, “Poverty”, “Conversion of Life”, “Stability”, and “Leadership” review and explain the basics of monastic life in a manner relevant to all vocations and communities, including those of other faiths.