Cover image for Beyond the walls : monastic wisdom for everyday life
Beyond the walls : monastic wisdom for everyday life
Wilkes, Paul, 1938-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 1999.
Physical Description:
xxiii, 244 pages ; 25 cm
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Material Type
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BX2525.A33 W58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In this searingly personal spiritual exploration, Wilkes treads a pilgrim's path that takes him behind the walls of a monastery and back into the everyday world as a changed man.

Author Notes

Paul Wilkes's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines both in the United States and abroad. He wrote and directed the acclaimed PBS documentary on Thomas Merton, "Merton: A Film Biography," and is the author of many books. He lives with his wife and family in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Wilkes (author of The Good Enough Catholic and author/director of the PBS documentary Merton: A Film Biography) believes that monastic spiritual wisdom can be accessible to all. Over the course of a year, he made monthly visits to Mepkin, a Trappist monastery; during each visit he focused on a particular aspect of monastic life and each month's visit comprises a chapter of this book. Each chapter begins with concrete descriptions of that month's trip to Mepkin, profiling Wilkes's personal transformations through his private thoughts and interactions with individual monks. These visits serve as the platform to explore difficult topics such as faith, prayer, community and discernment. Using the Rule of St. Benedict as a reference, Wilkes amplifies his discussion with a variety of sages, including the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, the Indian monastic Raimundo Panikkar and Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Merton. Each chapter ends with his exit from the cloister, as he tries to incorporate insights gained into his cluttered world as father, husband, teacher, writer and lay minister. The spiritual journey Wilkes describes is one of continual conversion in which the end goal is never reached. Rather, monastic wisdom speaks to the journey itself, leading the traveler to discern his or her way of faith "beyond the walls." Wilkes has created a loving book that will help laypeople findÄor learn to createÄpeace in their busy lives. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



JUNE Indirection Finding the True Path It is a strange and wondrous place--as monasteries typically are; too sensuous and exquisite a setting for a life considered austere, marginal, or irrelevant to that which we know as "the real world." Egrets flying in from the Cooper River marshes sail through air sweetly fragrant with magnolia and gardenia blossoms. Lining the grand approach to what was once a fine rice plantation are giant live oaks, their thick branches draped with Spanish moss like so many boas casually flung over the shoulders of substantial but elegant cotillion belles. The air may at first seem quiet, but echoes break through time to be carried along in the muggy stillness. The throaty call of the chieftain and medicine man at the campfire, over a deerskin drum's steady beat; the wail of slaves far from home, softly wafting a spiritual toward a heaven that offered their only relief; the confident laughter of a press baron and his friends, thick with well-mixed martinis, sated with the quail shot that day. Some fifty years ago, the latest of the settlers came. Their voices would be hushed, raised only to their Divine Spirit. This was a strange breed of men, sprung from a swamp in France, driven by the desire to conquer themselves and create a heavenly kingdom on earth. They sought God--God alone. A noble quest. Few persevere, but the ideal lives on. Cistercian life is not as it was in the malarial swamps of Citeaux, where monks worked and slept in their garments and ate (and sometimes gladly vomited) the bitter vetch that passed for sustenance. Today, these monks have e-mail and a microwave, eat frozen food and wear synthetic fibers; but the quest is still very much the same. And that is why people like myself come here, to experience the timeless, the idealistic, the impractical. It does not matter what hour of day or time of year I arrive, for the Trappists laugh at time, bending it to their resolute wills by obeying it precisely. They gather for prayer at 3:20, 5:30, 7:30 a.m., noon, 6:00 and 7:40 p.m.; meals and work periods begin and conclude at similarly uniform times. There is no other place in my life so comforting in its sameness. I came to the Trappists this June day--as is often the case when we arrive at a monastery--on a fool's mission. Our desire is genuine, but our methods too rooted in that so-called real world. We approach the monastery directly, banging on the gates, demanding that it release its secrets. We know the questions; we are sincere; we have not taken the easy way. Should not the answers then follow quickly? God should stand ready to speak to us. I come seeking peace. And answers. May I please have some? Now! I arrived that morning like a Marine storming a beach, fierce, intentional, armed with a battle plan. For some reason that was overwhelmingly important at the time, I felt I needed to stop skirting around the edges of monastic life and get right to its essence. I wanted to find out how monks experienced God. Wasn't this why monks came to monasteries, why we visit them? What better place could there be to hear about the experience of God than in a Trappist monastery? "God. That's a tough one to talk about," said Brother Edward quizzically when I saw him on the path just outside the church as I arrived early in the morning. Edward is a Trappist of forty years, having entered after a tour in the Navy when the immensity and the quiet of the ocean summoned him to a journey upon an expanse even more vast and uncharted. He joined the community at Gethsemani when Thomas Merton was there--although with the strict silence that was then practiced, he never exchanged more than eye contact with the great spiritual master. Edward is a handsome man, sixty-nine years old, with silvery hair, a trimmed silver beard, and a ready Polish smile--which he flashed, showing well-spaced teeth; then he was off. Monks don't leave questing pilgrims standing there with a stupid question on their lips; instead, they gently move the venue. The venue onEdward's mind was the tremendously successful presentation of "The Dream of Gerontius" that had been staged at the monastery as one of the special events of Piccolo Spoleto, part of Spoleto Festival USA. While many events are staged in Charleston, still other concerts take place, as the festival's brochure notes, in "the churches, the parking lots, the storefronts and wherever people might gather." Monasteries are not the usual gathering spots, at least not for most people; but I had long ago learned that monks, while rigid about certain aspects of life, were far from literal minded. Mepkin's abbot, Father Francis Kline--a Julliard-trained musical marvel who had mastered all of Bach by the age of fifteen--had been the organist for Sir Edward Elgar's composition, its text by John Henry Cardinal Newman sung by a superb chorus. But it was not only interest in Francis's sterling performance and the packed house that brought us together; it was a pursuit that we especially shared that Edward wanted to talk about. I had spent more hours with Edward over the past few years than any other of the Mepkin monks, not in any great spiritual pursuit or dialogue but in the refectory kitchen as we prepared a series of Sunday lunch extravaganzas for the community. Not a half-bad cook myself, it was a small contribution I could make. Edward talked of the smoked salmon, fresh asparagus and mesquite salad around which the after-concert meal centered as if it were a sacred oblation, manna in the desert, holy food. He spoke of Celia Cerasoli, proprietor of a fine Charleston restaurant, with the hushed respect due venerable abbots--or abbesses. Day in, day out, their vegetarian fare might march to an all too familiar beat, but Trappist monks still know, savor, and pay homage to great food when it is offered. If great spiritual masters are honored within this tradition, so are great culinary masters. Edward had blunted the planned assault. The chapel bells were ringing; it was time for Mass. Talking about the experience of God would have to wait so that we might try to have such an experience instead. The abbey church at Mepkin is built in the Cistercian style, in the shape of a cross, with a high-vaulted ceiling soaring over what is a quite narrow palus, the vertical portion of Christianity's cosmic tree. There are no adornments or diversions such as stained glass windows or fine liturgical art to lure the mind, only a stark granite altar at the front, with a simple crucifix on a stand and four candles at its corners. A square granite holy-water font sits before it, symbolizing the continuing purification that must take place in the life of the seeker. "God alone" reads the stark call to arms above the entrance to more than a few Trappist monasteries; this quiet place is testimony to that noble pursuit. All things unnecessary to that end are muted in Cistercian life, so that the interior journey to the heart of God and into the depths of one's own soul may be pursued without distraction. As an overnight visitor, I was invited to sit with the monks in the two rows of varnished-pine choir stalls aligned against each long wall. In their midst that morning I found myself both praying fervently--for help in my "experience of God" venture--and daydreaming hopelessly. During one of the readings, with my mind floating about the airy spaces overhead, my eyes wandered upwards to a circular window high in the cupola in which a cross--or simply two pieces of molding (in such a place, the seeker finds symbolism everywhere)--had been placed. The sun was now high enough to give the sky that pure blue shade it achieves best when the day (or one's mind) is fresh. Clouds, like meringue puffs, scudded across this serene tableau. I realized how well I could see their movement, how rich was the color of the sky, limited as I was to taking in one infinitesimally small fraction of the broad sweep that offered itself fully just outside those walls. Such it is with the monastic life; so restricted, a small, pure peephole on the universe--but what a view! Profound, rich, more than enough for human eyes to behold. We need to restrict the view in order to better see the movement of God; by seeing everything, we see nothing at all. I was living proof of that. How I wanted this vantage point to be the perspective from which I could see all of life. That is why I have come to monasteries all my life, seeking to see intensely and clearly, hoping to take that keener acuity in all things. But if my monastic visits usually imparted a sense of peace and a view of life at once detached and yet more passionate, if moments of such insight send chills of recognition through me, I had proved an utter failure in making the monastic experience real and accessible when I was outside the monastery. Lost in my reverie, my face turned upward, I was brought back to earth at that moment by one of the most irritating voices I had ever heard. It was the sing-songy voice of one of the monks, reading the gospel. All the intonations were wrong, the emphases falling on the wrong words, the voice too loud, too jarring, too embarrassingly jejune. All I could hear were tones, not words; it was as though someone were jabbing at my eardrums with an ice pick. Was I alone in my irritation? Hadn't this man ever been told how he was ruining what should have been a sublime moment for his brother monks--and for fervent pilgrims? Excerpted from Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life by Paul Wilkes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Historical Notep. xiii
Introduction - Monasteriesp. xix
June - Indirection: Finding the True Pathp. 1
July - Faith: The Core of Our Livesp. 19
August - Conversatio: Incremental Heroismp. 41
September - Stability: A Sense of Where You Arep. 63
October - Detachment: Freedom of the Heartp. 85
November - Discernment: Charting Life's Pathp. 108
December - Mysticism: Eternity Nowp. 126
January - Chastity: True Freedomp. 147
February - Prayer: Mutual Desirep. 162
March - Vocation ...: ... Within Vocation Within Vocation ...p. 182
April - Community: Many Churchesp. 205
May - The Simple Path: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Lifep. 228
Afterwordp. 243
Acknowledgmentsp. 245