Simple Gifts

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Francis Kline, OCSO. Four Ways of Holiness for the Universal Church: Drawn from the Monastic Tradition. “Foreword” by Ladislas Orsy, SJ. “Afterword” by Michael Downey. Cistercian Publications, 2006, 159 pages. $19.95 paperback.

Until his death in August 2006, Father Francis Kline, the third Abbot of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist Monastery near Moncks Corner, South Carolina, illuminated the lives of the brothers he led in the ancient tradition of work and prayer, Ora et labora, set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict. Francis’s pastoral crozier, however, reached far beyond Mepkin’s grounds through his concern for the spiritual, social, and environmental well-being of the Lowcountry’s citizens; his insightful talks to ecclesial and secular audiences; his renown as an artist at an organ’s console; and his capacity for understanding, guidance, compassion, and laughter that defined his relationships. His ever-broadening circle of friends included Strachan Donnelley, the late founder and president of the Center for Humans and Nature, who met Francis ten years ago and, until his own death in 2008, held the Abbot as close to his heart and intellect as Francis held him. Though they certainly differed on theological matters, these men held common passions, among them an abiding love of nature’s biological, aesthetic and spiritual richness and a commitment to the ethical imperative that humans—themselves a part of nature—care for this world.

Four Ways of Holiness shifts the focus away from the brilliant monk whose public self was defined by a powerful personality and generous heart toward the Francis who was foremost and always a monk, a contemplative member of a rigorous order that calls its members to pray without ceasing, to strip away worldly veneer, and to pursue a lifelong yearning for union with God. In four essays—meditations on conversion, suffering, desire, and unity—Francis focuses on Christian life, especially as it is lived by monks and nuns, and presents his insights as monasticism’s gift to the Church.

“Conversion” builds upon Christians’ continual struggle to live into their baptismal vows, realizing that is the beginning of “a dynamic process in the individual that . . . is consummated in death” (p. 7). Cistercians are blessed, Francis writes, by the asceticism of their calling, whereby monks “begin to peel back accumulated layers of a false identity . . . which we show to the world” (p. 11), so that, defenseless and afraid, they may move into the fullness of the Gospel.

“Suffering” is the detailed, engaging, poignant story of his extended battle with cancer, much of the struggle taking place at Sloan-Kettering in New York. An honest autobiographical account of the physical effects of the disease and the harshness of the treatments, Father Kline’s story is at its core a meditation on the inevitability of suffering. Pain, fear, and uncertainty are constants, he writes, but so too are the bountiful gifts of kindness and love. Loss of control and enforced absence from his communal home in South Carolina leave him, at times, in emotional twilight where, in the midst of impending hopelessness, he continues to find spiritual sustenance. After almost continual shuttling between New York and Mepkin Abbey, Father Francis concludes “that in the mystery of suffering one comes against one’s limits on many fronts. But one can also open the door to a communion with as many divine dimensions or more than the experience” (p. 61) where God’s faithfulness keeps darkness at bay.

The Christian’s desire for God requires a further stripping away, the purging of selfishness, ambition, and envy. And again, in its most basic manifestation of the Church at prayer, the monastic tradition offers its example: “The contemplative monastic tradition is by far the oldest and richest in experience and attendant literature for the expression of pure prayer stemming from the deep desire for God” (p. 70).

The concluding meditation on unity is not limited to the author’s critique of ecclesial fragmentation among Roman Catholics and other Christian bodies, but is a sorrowful indictment of the pride, arrogance, and self-serving that fractures the self, creating fissures that separate people from one another, from nature, and from God. And, again, the monastic tradition stands in humble efficacy: “In that ecstatic movement of God toward us and back to him is forged a new unity of all persons and things” (p. 145).

Four Ways of Holiness is Francis’s apologia for monasticism and for his own intense engagement in its demanding austerity as the path toward spiritual plenty. Francis’s orthodox Christianity and focus on Scripture may seem outmoded or even irrelevant in a secular world. Yet Francis, in his celebration of monasticism’s intellectual tradition, offers thoughtful readers a gift: an understanding that the chaff of life, blown away by sacrifice and simplicity, reveals the means of living in harmonious concert with life’s creative unfolding.

  • William K. Bailey

    William Bailey, senior program associate for USC’s School of the Environment and the Center for Humans and Nature, was the writer and executive producer of the documentary Common Ground that includes dazzling photography of the ACE Basin’s ecological splendor.

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