Those who know me, know that I once considered becoming a monk. I have always been interested in finding how to incorporate as much of monastic spirituality into modern life as possible, while living in a world that is, for now, where my calling lies. John Michael Talbot's The Universal Monk is not so much a how-to as it is what-is. This book serves as an excellent primer for what has been called "the new monasticism." In addition to the rich and interesting history, Talbot's book provides insight into the elements of spirituality monastics primarily focus on and how they (and we, one senses) work toward the selfless, self-emptying life that Jesus lived.
The Universal Monk includes warnings and reflections on why monastic life is not for everyone and where monasticism fails for some individuals and why some communities fail or struggle to achieve their goals. Talbot reminds us that Americans often find it hard to live in monasteries because it "requires a voluntary relinquishment of one's self-will and self-determination under a rule and leadership that simply runs counter to the American ethos." I am of the opinion that much of that ethos is what may well be hurting the country, and that much in monastic spirituality could easily restore our country without us losing what is good and unique about American life.
What American Christians, in particular, can learn from this book is the need to seek God and find renewal in our relationship with Him before setting out in ministry and work. So much is hampered and unhappy in our lives because so much is about the hurried (and harried) need to get this or that done, and that includes ministries and "expressions" of our faith. We worry too much about what we are to the world, and too little on what we are to ourselves and to God. Before we can address anything wrong with our world, we must do even more than get the planks out of our lives. We must get in real touch with the God we want our world to be changed by. We need this renewal, not just once but every moment. As Talbot writes, "our real person is often very different than our personality. Our personality is often the persona we have learned to put on in order to hide from the often difficult and even violent outer world. The sad thing is that we often get confused and think that our personality is our person. We lose touch with ourselves and with everything around us. We end up living an illusion because we do not really even know who we are anymore. Jesus comes to restore us to ourselves" (emphasis mine).
Though just over 200 pages, The Universal Monk is expansive, and I think I'll need to re-read it. But even on my first read, I was awestruck at the simple and profound life that is drawn here. I say life, because this isn't a book of mere ideas. It is about what the author calls "conversion of life." And wherever we are, such conversion is needed and can be most powerful, not only to the individual, but the larger communities where we dwell.
Excerpts of the Talbot's book can be read here.