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Posted September 20, 2010

Book: Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life
Author: Paul Wilkes
Acta Publications. Chicago, IL. 2010. Pp.342

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Paul Wilkes may be the most perceptive observer of what is really happening in the Catholic Church in the United States over the past fifty years. In a series of non-fiction books — from In Mysterious Ways: The Death and Life of a Parish Priest to The Good Enough Catholic: A Guide for the Perplexed to The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics to his recent autobiography In Due Season: A Catholic Life — Wilkes has documented those places where faith meets mission.

Ten years ago, Wilkes published Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, one of the seminal works on the lessons monastic life holds for the modern, secular, daily existence of most laypeople. Over the course of one year, he made monthly trips to visit the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, beginning expectantly in June and ending gloriously in May. During each encounter he focused on a particular aspect of monastic life, and each month’s experience comprises a chapter of this book, opening with a description of Wilkes original monthly visit to the monastery and concluding with explorations of difficult issues such as faith, prayer, community and vocation.

In the Tenth Anniversary Edition of this classic work, Wilkes returns to Mepkin, turning his lens figuratively and literally on the monks who remain there and the new ones discerning whether or not the monastic life is for them. He has added his own original, full-color photography and a new Introduction.

Each chapter closes as Wilkes searches for the proper ways to integrate what he learned during his time at the Abbey into his life as a father, husband, teacher, writer and lay minister. He uses monastic wisdom to speak to the journey of faith itself, letting readers discover their own path “beyond the walls.”

An Except from the Book:

October — Detachment: Freedom of the Heart

From the moment a new monk arrives, turns in every item he has brought from the world, and is issued new clothes from a common storeroom, detachment is at hand in earnest. He eats the food placed on the refectory serving table; observes the hours of prayer, work, and sleep; often is given a job assignment unlike anything he has ever done before. His will, equally, is handed over; while he may speak his mind, he is to obey the abbot in all things. If a warm pair of slippers arrives that might warm cold toes on wintry mornings, he must not claim them for his own, wearing them only with the abbot’s permission. Books, tapes, candy — all are common property as soon as they arrive at the monastery; the name on the address label is irrelevant. Detachment from things simple and great is but a symbolic offering of the monk’s total self, so that God might have an opportunity to shape him. The idea is not so much to break a man, but to separate him from the nonessentials of life, so that he might seek the essential — God. Detachment is meant to create in him an ever-growing and evolving state of being, not a process of having. Certainly at odds with the world, detachment is nonetheless at the heart of monastic life.

Not too long after Thomas Merton arrived at Gethsemani, the young monk triumphantly proclaimed his unquestioning fervor for the life he was then undertaking: “The best way to keep the Rule is to keep the letter as perfectly as possible.” Merton had willingly left the world and its goods behind in order to create in himself a new being. Detachment, he sensed, was a key element of his monastic formation, crucial to his spiritual growth. Fasting from food, abstinence from sex, the subrogation of his will; all this emptying of natural desires would help him find the intimate relationship with God he so ardently sought.

Table of Contents:


June: Indirection: Finding the true path

July: Faith: The core of our lives

August: Conversatio: Incremental heroism

September: Stability: A sense of where you are

October: Detachment: Freedom of the heart

November: Discernment: Charting life’s path

December: Mysticism: Eternity now

January: Chastity: True freedom

February: Prayer: Mutual desire

March: Vocation: Within vocation within vocation

April: Community: Many churches

May: The simple path: Monastic wisdom for everyday life