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Book Review

Peter-Damian Belisle

The Language of Silence - The Changing Face of Monastic Solitude

ISBN 0 232 52468 8

DLT, London, 2003, £9.95

(price at publication of review)

Reviewed January 2005; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

If you think that hermits are by quirk of nature anti-social, or by perverse preference indifferent to the concerns of the world, then allow this concise and very readable history of monastic solitude to inform you.  With a colourful cast of characters, not all of whom are confined to caves in the desert, the book challenges the usual image of the hermit who, once ensconced in the proverbial hut rarely emerges.  Many of the contemporary personalities included here found ways to live out their affinity with solitude in the city street, ghetto, prison cell, picket line or noisy apartment building: 'secular' locales for contemplative living and a more contemporary asceticism.

This clear and insightful introduction to the tradition of monastic solitude leads us from the solitary giants of the Bible and earliest roots in the desert abbas and ammas to such recent figures as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and the Trappist martyr Christian de Chergé.  Peter-Damian Belisle weaves an explication of solitude into his description of monastic development.  He writes: "The shades of solitude cover motivation's spectrum from the rare light of eremitical ecstasy to the darkest hues of isolated misanthropy."  Himself a monk of New Camaldolese in California, Peter-Damian is well aware of the pitfalls of solitude and the often exquisite forms of narcissism that can manifest.

The Language of Silence presents an expansive interpretation of solitude, not only in the choice of biographies but in the reflections of the author that accompany them.  Peter-Damian suggests that solitude is integral to the human experience and, when freely embraced, enables us to enter into our deeply personal mystery where God dwells at the heart of our uniqueness.  Solitude is the 'inner desert' where we run the risk of transformation, of becoming fully who we are created to be.

This book is imaginatively crafted with keen insight into the human psyche.  The dangers and gifts of the solitary quest for God are stated without romance or melodrama.  Here is wisdom for the inner life, gleaned from the experience of women and men down the monastic ages and knit together by the first hand knowledge of one who seeks to live in monastic solitude today.  Included is a list of good titles for further reading.

Catherine Joy CSF



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