David Carlson begins his book, Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World, with these words, “I began to understand in my formative years that following Christ would come with no clear map.” (ix) Peace Be With You is an intimate look at such a mapless journey in light of the attacks that have come to be known as 9/11. Not content with revenge and retaliation, Carlson sets out on a journey into the world of monasticism to see if he can discover a different kind of response; a response rooted in the practices of prayer, silence and solitude.
The book is arranged geographically looking first to the desert, second to America’s heartland and finally to New York. In the desert he begins to ask, “Does the Christ whom I worship see the world with its religious divides, or does Christ see beyond that to the suffering of our world?” (49) In other words, in the desert he discovers a community that did not seek to place blame (they never mentioned Islam or Muslims in their interviews), but one that sought to address the issue of suffering through prayer. Carlson concludes that the monastic model found in the desert offers a new way to be community. This community is built on mutual submission and servanthood rather than domination. (74) In the desert Carlson leads his readers to discover that, “There is no way to get around the fact that Jesus makes a very unnatural demand of his followers. He asks us to to forever remain turned toward the Other, to seeing my worst enemy as my neighbor.” (91)
In America’s heartland Carlson travels to the Abbey of Gethsemani to hear the heart of the community that formed Thomas Merton. Merton’s vision, according to Carlson, was that each person would see themselves as “walking around shining like the sun” and that others would see them in the same way. Carlson left “Merton’s Men” with the insight that wherever and whenever human beings isolate themselves hell is present on earth. However, he also learned that “God is always with us, lurking in the Other, our neighbors, the very ones we wish to avoid.” (121) Perhaps the most profound insight Carlson offers his readers is this, “Christ has already healed the world – we just do not act in light of that truth.” (142)
Carlson arrived in New York, the last leg of his journey, with fresh insight into the presence of Christ in the aftermath of 9/11. If Christ is to be found, he will be found in the Other, our neighbors. He writes, “What problem in the world would not be approached with more humility, creativity, and energy if we saw in our neighbor the presence of God?” (230) He concludes the chapter asking the age-old question, Could God not have done more to stop all of this?
The book has several strong points. First, if one is not familiar with the diversity of monastic life in the United States he or she gets a virtual tour of the more profound monastic communities; profound because they have shaped and continue to shape Christianity. Second, the book presents community, one founded on mutual submission and servanthood, not only as one possible option but as the superior option. In order for community to grow and be healthy we must see in each other what we can’t always see in ourselves. My greatest delight in the book is found in the closing paragraph, “Forgiveness, not the death of anyone [i.e. Osama bin Laden], is the only exit from our via dolorosa, the only path to resurrection joy.”
On the other hand, Peace Be With You has several marks against it. First, it is not extremely engaging. I enjoyed the content, but the style of writing was difficult for me. Let me just be honest, I got bored. (This book took me several months to read!) Like I said, though, the content is good. Second, and most disturbing to me, is that the book ends with the all too often cliche of shaking one’s fist at God and wanting a “more powerful deity.” (254)
All in all I would give the book two stars.
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