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4.3 out of 5 stars
Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life
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on February 22, 2017
Thank you
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on March 9, 2017
So much seeking and so little depth...
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VINE VOICEon November 1, 2004
I agree with the editorial review above; the metaphors are stretched to the limit. Still, I really enjoyed this book.

Probably anyone considering buying this book has puzzled over the same questions that the author is coming to terms with in this personal journal. Am I living the life I was meant to live? How can I live my life closer to God? How can I balance my need for solitude with the demands of family and work?

Going along with the author on these monastic retreats and being allowed to read his most personal thoughts; thoughts that were very familiar to me, was a treat.

I hope we hear more from him soon!
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Thomas Moore opens this narrative with his preface, reminding us to choose a spirituality being open to multiple possibilities rather than the worrying over the nuances of belief. (xi) Midway through his own Dantean journey, a burned-out professor and workaholic who's been neglecting his family, Slattery wants to recharge his soul and confront his own mortality. DPS "wanted to reimagine my life from the point of view of eternity," seeking to-- as Michael Novak phrases it-- act earnestly but without attachment to the results. (3)

DPS tires of the Church's "Main Street theology," longing rather for the back alleys and haunted corners of facing his mortality straightforwardly. Prayer, he reflects beginning at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, is not petition but entering a presence. Not that God is there. If we knew he/she/it was, why then have faith? The possibility, not the inevitability, of what he seeks in the divine invites him towards silence. God may take him over, or he may not. Not sure of what he will find, but DPS opens himself to the chance- the readiness is all, I guess, to quote Hamlet!

DPS begins to peer into the dark silence where God may reside, beyond the logos, refusing the manifestation, before the word made flesh. This emptiness preceded the light, the flesh, the world, and us. DPS reflects on the love of poverty, and how this shows the "blessed are the poor in spirit" confronts his own memories of a life lived by his parents grudgingly, under an alcoholic father, a too-thrifty mother, a cowed family. Solitude is a "strong potion" best sipped slowly and rarely. Thoreau's relevant chapter in "Walden"- Of the "subtle powers" of heaven and earth: "We seek to perceive them and do not; we seek to hear them and do not. Identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them." (41) Monks and nuns do not flee the world but face their own mortality and frailty within it; they choose to lessen distraction and limit temptation so as to confront their ultimate silence before God.

DPS writes movingly about the shy foxes and stillness of Big Sur, the bursting grapes and his father's torment as DPS wanders Napa Valley at the Carmelites, and at the Sonoma Zen Center takes on Zendo early morning and the oryoki "eating handout" rituals that are both compelling in what they resemble and awkward for their strangeness for one raised Irish Catholic. He learns to rake the rocks in circles so they enter into one another- the duty he's assigned slows him down, so what takes us fifteen minutes in our world is transformed. "The task was to imagine the process rather than rush to results." (35) I wonder how we would all live if we worked with such mindfulness, and how we'd sustain such wonder after repetition wears down novelty. Which is the whole point of order for a monk, to remain in one place, to do the same things, and not to escape the world but to face his own mortal frailty within it, without escape, distraction, or respite. Blackberries, a deer's severed leg, altitude sickness, cows separated from their calves, and Hohokam petroglyphs all inspire powerful insights.

The book admittedly, for me, did despite its appropriate brevity bog down at times. Most of his prayer-poems I found not to my aesthetic taste, although I recognize his quest. His grappling with his father's legacy encourages his own tender and blunt reflections, but these are often at the level of what one would write in a diary or tell a spiritual director; for more reticent me these confessions feel awkward on his distant page. I admittedly do not seek out inspirational writing when its shelved thus, so my preferences may not be those of this book's target audience. I found this by chance in a library cross-reference. While I learned much from it, there's too little detail about the felt, physical, concrete surroundings DPS stays in for roughly a week at at time for fifteen weeks in all. Minimal descriptions force you into his own mind and spirit instead. This direction left me too detached from experiencing enough of the actual travel he embarked upon during his sabbatical, but other readers may favor his journalistic intent. Fittingly, he admires Merton for the same level of intimacy attained in that monk's notebooks.

DPS learns more about solitude's disturbing and consoling qualities as he makes his way to other fascinating retreat centers and monasteries in the Northwest and then down the Rockies into the Southwest, where nothingness at Nada Hermitage confronts him and challenges him. Charity, patience, and wisdom emerge but there's no Pollyannish transformation or New Age bliss. For that, DPS merits acclaim, as this narrative is realistic. No dramatic, invented climactic moment ends his search. Gradually earned, the lessons he learned must be taken back into the world he "left"; I wonder how he fared afterwards? Terrifying, not comforting, to face this brutal rawness of spirit, as DPS learns well.

(Having visited myself a few of the places listed in the main text and the afterword, I agree that he chose fine retreats throughout the West. I only hope, nearly a decade after he wrote this, that the Catholic establishments can sustain themselves; the ones he lists that I know all have fewer, and more elderly, monks, friars, sisters, or nuns now than when he made his count. Error on p. 137: St Andrew's Priory in California is not a "Trappist Cistercian community" but a Benedictine one. Trappists live in California, but in the north of its Central Valley at Vina.)
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on January 29, 2006
I read this book about a pilgrimage while I was on one of my own. I went to Spain and walked a sizeable part of the Via de la Plata - a route of the Camino de Santiago. I had previously walked another route nine months before.

This book chronicles a journey, via a beat up truck, to different retreat centers, monasteries and convents by the author. His feelings and emotions are erudite, he wears them on his sleeve, and this is one of the first rules of memoir writing: be willing to bare all. And Slattery does this as he confronts his deceased father, his fears, his past and present.

At times he longs to give up and return to the comfortable minutia of everyday life, a test common to pilgrims. One can see as the pages turn the metamorphosis that he goes through. This is a book, above all, about contemplation, retrospection, determination and hope. He has been living his life partly dead, but through grace finds ressurection. He is not dogmatic, though he is a devout Catholic. He is not preachy, but humble. He is many times poetic, many times candid.

I would be surprised if, no matter your religion or spiritual views, you do not find yourself at the end of this book with almost as many bookmarks as there are pages.
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on April 16, 2004
Mr. Slattery is a spiritual seeker who has the grace to include stories of his "failures." Rather than becoming enlightened, he remains very human, which comes as a great relief to this reader. Slattery fidgets and has a hard time meditating. He gets anxious, homesick and really has to work at sticking to the agenda he sets for himself. He becomes aroused at the sight of a "lovely young woman," a fellow retreatant, and both celebrates and mourns the 16-yr-old nature of his arousal.
In contrast to sentimental reports of transcendent experiences in nature, Slattery wishes at first that he were not alone in his campsite, and then is surprised by the contentment he finds in such solitude. This writer also enjoys his encounters with human nature. Mr. Slattery's portraits of the people he meets are as poignant as his portrayal of Big Ears, the mouse who thrives on poisoned food, or Rusty the dog, or the grape arbor he hikes through on a hot summer afternoon. This pilgrim is a retreatant, but he is no recluse.
I recommend this book to readers who are curious about the nature of spirit, but who need to discover it in ways that are human and recognizable.
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on June 18, 2004
Although Dennis Slattery's Grace in the Desert is a moving account of one man's spiritual pilgrimege, we are able to recognize ourselves in his personal heroics. Grace in the Desert invites the reader into the author's most intimate and thoughtful meditations on soul, spirit and the consequences of life's occurences. It is a relief to hear of one's humanity in spiritual endeavors, to witness the struggle, fear, insecurities, vulnerability, revelations, and love of family and spirit. The author's willingnes to share his ambivalence, memories and epiphanies invites other's to do the same. We, too, feel permission to be messy, uncertain, lost, and filled with grace in our spiritual search. Slattery's eloquent contemplations are supported and deepened by a host of spiritual writers. The reader is sure to be moved by how profoundly he considers life, the human soul and the Divine. With Ishmael-like courage, Dennis Slattery has traveled to the depths and heights of human spirituality, looked toward the face of God, and returned to tell his story so that we, too, may be altered by his experience. Grace in the Desert is a gift to all who are questing for a deeper existence.
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on November 18, 2004
As a mother and a psychologist my pilgrimages are not accomplished on extended retreats or treks, but in the folds and unexpected flows of a busy day. Like many, I turn to spiritual literature of many ilk to aid me in interrupting my preoccupations and orienting me to meditation and prayer. What joy this summer when I found myself riding the wake of Dennis Slattery's Grace in the Desert:Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life, a lyrical story of his months spent at different spiritual retreat places. Far from any monastery myself, his intimate prose and sustained narrative reflections allowed me to slow down. They oriented me to the soulful pilgrimage that is available to all of us at any moment if we are ready to forego numbing routine, habitual rapidity, empty diversion, and consumeristic addictions. By placing his feet on the path of the pilgrim and his pen to paper, Slattery shares his gift of pilgrimage: a solo journey becomes food for the community. Leading the way, he invites us in his wake to the realms of spirit and soul for which we thirst.
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on July 23, 2004
I found Dennis Patrick Slattery's Grace in the Desert deeply moving and a perfect companion on my own summer quest to slow to nature's pace. Grace in the Desert provides an invisible yet evocative essence similar to the way in which the reading of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is a ritual in itself. Entering Grace in the Desert as a reader is to be led to meditate oneself. I am in a reverie reading it and find that the point each day when I am about to convene with it prompts a change in my feeling, a transition to a meditative state. I don't know when I've read a book that has quite done that. I am very touched by this book and the author's generous writerly spirit in the sharing of his profound inner personal journey, a trek of the questing soul vividly described. I have not yet finished it, yet am already aware that part of me does not want it to end.
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on April 6, 2004
Not only does each one of us have a story within us that cries to be told; each of us has a pilgrimage in us waiting to be lived. Joseph Campbell's constant refrain in his work on mythology is: HEED THE CALL. Grace in the Desert is a story of one soul who was called to travel to a dozen monasteries and retreat centers in the Western United States and to enter into the monastic life, the life of the spirit, but not divorced from the material or natural worlds, to explore the dark corners of the soul and the gifts of ordinary life. This is my story; I hope that your urge, your desire to retreat into the wilderness of your own spiritual woods, is supported and encouraged by reading my story--Dennis Patrick Slattery, author.
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