The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 39, Nr. 2, June 2009                               Richardton, ND 58652

Inside this issue:

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AMN Online

 

 

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Issue Contents


 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ESTHER DE WAAL

The noted spiritual writer Esther de Waal was recently on an American tour in connection with the publication of her latest book, Seeking Life: The Baptismal Invitation of the Rule of St. Benedict. The editor spoke with her about her relationship with Benedictinism and invited her to share her thoughts with AMN readers.

Editor: How did you first become acquainted with the Rule of St. Benedict?

Esther: Academically, I was a historian of landscapes, places, and buildings. I came to St. Benedict not from reading the text but from actually living in a medieval priors lodging. When my husband was dean of Canterbury, I was living in that magnificent monastic complex. I was busy about the business of raising four young sons, but I was fascinated by the buildings, and their history and images, even though I had never met a real live monk or nun.

When I did read the Rule, I was grateful that it was only 9000 words! I expected to find it boring and irrelevant. But I found myself trying to discover the vision that underlies it. To my amazement, it articulated what I had been trying to live in the context of a very busy family life.

It has now been 25 years since your book Seeking God began something of a revolution in bringing Benedictine wisdom to the world outside the monastery. What do you think happened with that book?

I had no idea I would start such a thing. If I had known any real Benedictines, I would probably never have had the audacity to write it. I was simply writing my reflections and, by a series of circumstances, it fell into the hands of Liturgical Press. There are so many people who tell me that they picked up the book by chance, and that it spoke to them and their own lives. I guess it caught on because of the timing. Like me, there were so many busy people going in so many directions. Benedict understood the importance of order, both external and internal.

What, then, is the basic message of the Rule for you?

Benedict reminds us of our real priorities: prayer, contemplation, balance, the ultimate significance of everything we do. He understands the paradox of life and how to hold things together. To be able to see God in all of it is liberating. That was the message of my 1987 book Living with Contradiction. The truth can be found in so many ways from so many sources. That is so different from a fundamentalist approach that settles on one narrow "truth," and hammers everyone with it.

The mystical dimension of the Rule is essential. As life speeds up, many people are recognizing the need for mindfulness amid all the multitasking. I think this is very important. It seems that, with the spate of books in recent years, we are getting further from that core message. I feel that some of them, in an attempt to popularize, have trivialized. They seem to put the Rule into the category of how-to books. They fail to recognize the mystical, the poetic, the imagery, the silence. Anything less than this is a real betrayal of Benedict.

So that brings us to your newest book. How did it come about?

It actually began with a footnote in my reading of the prologue of the Rule. I was fascinated by the idea that the prologue was based on baptismal teaching and homilies in the early Church. I began to read other baptismal texts from the patristic period. I found myself caught up in the power and the imagery surrounding baptism. The early Church lived by wonderful imagery, which we've lost. To re-read the prologue in this context of Scripture and baptismal images brought it to life in a new way for me. Ultimately the Rule and life are about the paschal mystery. This paschal mystery should be the focus of our study of the Rule and our living of it. To leave that out is unjust to Benedict. Our baptism is a commitment to live into the paschal mystery, and so is the life of the Rule.

This is your opportunity to speak to all of the North American monastics and friends who read this newsletter. Is there anything else you would like to say to us?

I have been hugely humbled by how many monastics have accepted an Anglican laywoman and allowed her to share their lives. Now that I have known real monks and nuns, it has opened to me a whole great worldwide family that has treated me as their sister. I have seen the works of the Good Samaritan sisters in Australia and the young communities in places like Namibia. I have feasted in the Philippines and shared poetry in Japan. What amazing riches I have experienced!

I am really encouraged by the way I see you tackling with such honesty the problems of diminished numbers and other changes. I have especially noticed the imaginative things happening with older members. They are such an inspiration in a culture where old people so often get put away from the rest of society.

I've also very much enjoyed seeing the way ecological and environmental concerns have surfaced and grown. I think St. Benedict should also be the patron of environmentalism. When people live with stability, they have to take a great responsibility for stewardship.

Benedictines have never shied away from technology.

Now that the book is out, what happens next for you?

II plan for this to be my last book on the Rule of St. Benedict but I will go on trying to live it. I have been so blessed by my work on it, traveling all over the world and being so accepted by the Benedictine family. Before, I had 20 years of the enclosed life of the tough things that come from raising a family. Then came my spiritual writings. Now 25 years on, I think its time for a new chapter. I want to return to my study of the history of places. Despite all my travels, I am rooted in the Welsh borders, living in the house we received from my father 46 years ago, a short distance from my childhood home. Life needs to be rooted. There, to my neighbors, I'm just a person they see as a gardener and a grandmother. That keeps everything in perspective.


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