Pro Vita Monastica: An Essay in Defense of the Contemplative Virtues

by Henry Dwight Sedgwick. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1923. 12mo. xviii + 164 pp. $3.50.
MR. SEDGWICK’S defense of the contemplative virtues is based on sound strategy. He does not wait to be attacked; he carries the war into the enemy’s country, and declares that the modern worship of the active virtues ends in utter disillusion. He agrees with the declaration of the old hymn, ‘doing is a deadly thing.’ In the conflict between the Church and the World, the World has been victor and has imposed its will and its standards of success.
Mr. Sedgwick turns from the hurly-burly of modern life to the ages when religious men forsook the world for a life of contemplation. The monastery at its best was a protest against the absorption in outward things. It was a witness to the fact that the ‘mind is its own place.’
In his idealization of the piety of the Middle Age and in his revulsion from modern materialism, Mr. Sedgwick reminds us of Henry Adams. But he cherishes the faith that it is possible — at least for some men — to escape the clutches of the machine and, retiring from the world, to live serenely in the contemplation of eternal realities. Such retirement he insists is not selfish; for what the multitudes need most is a renewal of their faith in spiritual values. When they see men who turn from the competitive struggle for worldly goods, because they seek only for ‘the undefiled rewards,’ they may be led to reconsider their own way of life. Mr. Sedgwick bases his plea on no dogma whatever, but upon human need. No matter what our conception of the world and its laws, we feel in ourselves the need for a peace which the world can neither give nor take away. ‘Holiness is a sentiment, a taste, a work of art, and therefore it plainly requires a great effort of social and individual volition. Let men strive for it in the World if they can be persuaded thereto; but let other ways be tried as well. Let lonely souls go off by themselves, and let the World feel that out of solitude may come a light that shall help many on their way.’
Pro Vila Monastica is a book to be placed on the same shelf with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Imitation of Christ, and William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude. It appeals to a mood which comes to every one. Even the busiest devotee of Efficiency must stop once in a w hile and ask himself — Efficient in what?