Monday, October 01, 2007

Book Review: "The Genesee Diary"

For the Catholic Priest and writer, Henri J.M. Nouwen, writing about visiting a Trappist Monastery is more than a diary, a visit to a monastery, it is a statement of insight and inspiration by a writer who starts his book with the simple words, "Thanks be to God that I am here!" Like the report on his visit, his words are heartfelt. The title is descriptive and straightforward, like the book itself: "The Genesee Diary: A Report from a Trappist Monastery."

A sincere, remarkable memoir by the writer, I was taken with his willingness to seek God and in his seeking come to terms with his life and relationship in Christ. Although it is a religious book, no doubt, the light hand of the well-known Henri J.M. Nouwen will not disappoint a wide readership. After all, this popular and well-regarded work has stood the test of time since it was first published, and, happily, is available again to a new generation of readers.

In his honesty, Nouwen says at one point about his conversations of spiritual direction with the Abbot John Eudes, "If I allowed no one but the Lord to determine my identity, would I know the Lord? Or is it a fact that even in my meditation I relate to the Lord as I relate to people--that is--by manipulation and projection."

Please don't be misled; this is a good man telling of his struggles, a brilliant man, even. Once a professor at Harvard, his time at Genesee brings him to say, "...I can slowly detach myself from this need for human affirmation and discover that it is in the relationship with the Lord that I find my true self, an unconditional surrender to him becomes not only possible, but even the only desire..." We journey with Father Nouwen as this unfolding reveals what he hoped for by staying at the monastery, not only for reflection and meditation, but also a coming to himself.

It is fair to say this book is about God and man; as part of his explanation, the writer states how the means to that end is prayer: "Speaking about prayer, I asked John Eudes a question that seemed very basic and a little naïve: `When I pray, to whom do I pray?' `When I say `Lord,' what do I mean?" In his quiet way, almost unnoticed by the ease of manner in the writing, the book addresses many most important questions. That is what Abbot John Eudes calls this particular insight about prayer, "...[a] most important question."

I found this book a book about love. "I would like to think a little more about love," he says, and he writes of how the monastery is a place of relationships. We learn how the monks live out their lives in Christ. We learn how he joins them, and they especially offer a hospitality that is one in Christ. Henri J.M. Nouwen comes to find this love, which teaches him, aids him in his ruminations and self-appraisals of his relationship and life in the world. After all, this is a book about a retreat. An admirable and readable hardback title published by Doubleday in my copy, certainly an asset to anyone's need for spiritual direction in the form of a report, and an asset as a book that fills the need for a just plain good read.

--Peter Menkin, Pentecost 2007

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