This book presents a very readable mix of history and thoughts on the monastic life coupled with Nicholas Buxton's own journey of faith that has taken him from alcoholism through Eastern religions (experiencing Hindu and Buddhist life in the Far East), through being in a TV "reality show" where five people spent 40 days in a monastery, through a month at the most austere monastery, Parkminister, and finally to training to be a priest in the Anglican Church.
The book opens with a brief history of the birth of monasticism in the desert. It then switches to Nicholas's early life at boarding school, after which he spent 10 years aimlessly (and mostly jobless) wandering and drinking. After loosing a friend who drowned after drinking too much Nicholas sold what he had and went to India, becoming exposed to Hinduism. Here he experienced a conversion, "a cracking of the hard but brittle shell of who we think we are" and his goal became focussed on the spiritual journey. Later Nicholas moved to New Zealand and spent 6 months in a Buddhist monastery. Here he makes the observation that monastic life is the most "normal" life possible because it is trying to live our our natural calling. Anthony of the Desert was described as having a `singleness of heart', a one-ness of purpose and life. Monks do not have a `home-life', a `family-life', a `spiritual-life' - they have their life with a single focus.
Nicholas has a simple, but I think insightful, view that all religion is a response to a deep-down knowing that something is not quite right in the world - something is missing that all the ambition and acquisition in the world does not satisfy.
Evagrius's eight thoughts (later to become the seven deadly sins) are discussed: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vanity & pride. As one is conquered then it opens up the danger of another (with pride the last danger of having conquered all others). Evagrius called these `thoughts' or `demons' and Nicholas draws a connection between `demon possession' and `thoughts which occupy our mind'. The Benedictine approach is also wary of dangers of extreme ascetism (which can be vainglorious) - the monk should have a choice of two dishes so that he may always eat what he prefers.
The mixture of prayer and work is discussed, with the observation that work is an extension of prayer. As St. Benedict instructed "Regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar". Another key aspect of Benedictine monasticism is community living - learning to see ourselves truthfully through interaction with others. This was a key element of the BBC series "The Monastery" that Nicholas was part of - five very different men sharing in monastic living for 40 days.
I appreciated Nicholas's description of `stability' and how it transfers from monastic life into our everyday lives:
Having stability implies engaging fully with the situation at hand, persevering in the face of obstacles and in spite of what might appear to be more appealing prospects. Stability is about being centred remaining focussed and undistracted.
Nicholas recounts his month in Parkminster, the Carthusian monastery that has a very austere way of life - including three hours of prayers starting at midnight. He talks of the challenge of the silence and how difficult it is to be "be here". I appreciated a point he made that detachment is not just from material things, or even detachment from owning our time and life, but he suggested that we need to grow in our detachment from the past (thinking about things gone) and the future (fantasising of how things might be in the future). Only when we are detached from the past and the future are we really present in the moment. Places such as Parkminister create an environment where the monks can slowly rid themselves of these attachments, in the silence of their cells, and embrace their true selves and so embrace the true reality of who they are. As Nicholas observes Parkminster raises the stakes in everything - either their life is complete nonsense, or it makes perfect sense.
The book ends with some thoughts on faith - that it is not a set of intellectual doctrines that must be accepted, but that it is a narrative that is embraced (sometimes in doubt and uncertainty) as the underlying basis for how one lives and what choices one makes. Faith must therefore be lives to be understood.