Writing is a solitary, introspective vocation. As is being a monk. So it's no surprise that several of the Trappist brothers at the Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville have produced worthy books, pamphlets and religious treatises over the years.
What does catch the eye, however, is the amazing grace in the writings of Charles Cummings, a native of Michigan and a "veteran" of 34 years at the monastery. Along with editing the order's national newsletter, "Father Charles" has also published five books - all on a national level and all to the acclaim of major American religious authors such as Basil Pennington and Henri J.M. Nouwen. This isn't desk-top publishing, this is Harper & Row publishing. And the treat is in discovering that the books are every bit as good as the author's champions would have you believe."When I was in school the only thing I wrote were school assignments," Father Charles says today. "But after I'd been a priest here for four years I was invited to study in the masters program at Duquesne University. I stayed there three years, and when I finished I felt the inclination to share the insights I was gaining. My first book was a version of my masters thesis, "Spirituality and the Desert Experience."
Several other books soon followed. Among them books on the monastic life, a prayer book called "Songs of Freedom" (Dimension Books, 1986) that shows how to use the Psalms as a devotional and "Eco-Spirituality" (Paulist Press, 1991), a book that offers a spiritual sense for the '90s.
But in the canon of Father Charles, the most impressive and most loved is "The Mystery of the Ordinary" (Harper & Row, 1982). There, the author takes the five senses and other physical aspects of life and gently leads the reader to see them as a window to the spiritual world. The book shows the touch of a master's - and The Master's - hand.
Author Henri Nouwen said it should be "read and re-read"; Brother Patrick Hart called it a book for everyone, "man or woman, religious or lay, Christian or Jew, monks from the East or West."
In short, it is a book that can easily stand beside the books by Harold Kushner, Thomas Merton - even the religious works of Leo Tolstoy.
Merton, especially, is a natural measuring stick. A Trappist monk himself, "Father Louis" - as he was known at the monastery in Gethsemene, Ky. - wrote dozens of books that are now considered Catholic classics. Any Trappist monk who decides to write begins in the shadow of "The Seven Storey Mountain," Merton's masterpiece. Some Trappists write around it, some write against it. Father Charles seems to have chosen to write along beside it. But then, having studied with Merton himself gives him an advantage.
"I was at Gethsemene in 1968," he says. "Every Sunday afternoon, Thomas Merton would give a conference in the Chapter Room there. I attended every one. He had a good sense of humor and was always saying things in a way that made people laugh."
Soon afterward Merton was accidently killed while visiting Buddhist monks in Asia. His loss was mourned by both the literary and religious world.
"It is sad he died in such a tragic way," says Father Charles. "But in another way, he was meeting God, which is what he'd been seeking his entire life. The death of a monk is never a complete loss. There is an element of rejoicing to it."
As of late, Father Charles, it seems, has the time to think of such things, but less time to write about them. He's moving in other directions. Gandhi said that writing was almost as noble as spinning, and Father Charles spends his time doing a version of "spinning." He whips up cups of creamed honey.
"I haven't begun a new project because of the other duties I have here," he says. "Or maybe that's just an excuse for having writer's block."
Probably not. The tall, deliberate, Michigan native arises at 3:15 a.m. and spends the day on the move. Along with editing the international newsletter, he cooks for the people on retreat at the monastery. He also serves as the monastery's prior (assistant abbott) and has other duties as well. The day of this interview he'd already spent the morning preparing 960 cups of cinnamon-flavored honey.
"There's a little hermitage out in the hills that I helped build many years ago," he says. "I used to get out there at least once a week. I loved it, the solitude and silence. Now I have to really arrange my schedule to go. I probably get out there once a month."
Still, Father Charles wouldn't trade his life in the monastery for the world. And that's not an overstatement. For him, a bad day at Holy Trinity beats a good day anywhere else - including the beach at Acapulco.
"The truth is, I don't feel I have much ability to be anything else," he says. "I don't see myself as being able to even hold down a good job. I don't see myself fitting in anywhere else. Monastic life is a good place for me. Some people look at monasteries and say, `That's the last thing I'd want to do. Give up married life and family, give up TV and meat.' But for people who are cut out for it, monastic life isn't the hardship it seems from the outside. I would find it a hardship to watch television and be forced to stay up late at night."
As for the chores that have tugged him away from writing, a monk's life is a life of cycles. And at age 54, Father Charles will undoubtedly cycle back into the writing mode again. And when he does, what will emerge? The epilog to his book "The Mystery of the Ordinary" holds a clue. In a way, it is the personal creed of Charles Cummings:
St. Teresa of Avila, writing in Book Four of her "Interior Castle" about the mysteries hidden in the smallest creatures, said: "I believe that in each little thing created by God there is more than what is understood, even if it is a little ant." It is by being gently, attentively present to the "more than" in everything we do that we cooperate with the transforming activity of the Spirit who dwells in our hearts. In what seems ordinary and everyday there is always more than at first meets the eye.
Such is the world of Father Charles - a world as rich and sweet as . . . well, the taste of honey.
- "Eco-Spirituality" by Charles Cummings is in print and available in paperback from Paulist Press. His earlier works are either on cassette tape or at various Catholic bookstores. You can also order them from the Holy Trinity Abbey (1250 S. 9500 East, Huntsville, UT 84317). Send requests to the attention of Father Charles.