Eugene Weekly : Books : 9.25.08

Clarity, and Return
Religious engagement and retreat
by Suzi Steffen

ANOTHER WORLD: A Retreat in the Ozarks, nonfiction by William Claassen. Sheed & Ward, 2007. Paperback, $17.95.

When EW included a “Best Faith-Based Organization” category on last year’s Best of Eugene ballots, we got a large number of angry responses. For years, discussions of faith have been dominated by right-wing Christians. But William Claassen’s Another World shows two alternative Christian faith traditions — one of contemplation and thoughtful community engagement; one of liberation theology and a commitment to freedom from oppression and hate.

Claassen uses the Trappist monastery Assumption Abbey, which welcomes guests on retreat in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, as a focal point to write about the value in contemplation and consideration, hard work and discipline, and life lived apart from the hustle.

Another World is an oddly disconnected book thanks to the random nature of visitors to the abbey and to time compression that makes Claassen’s six-week retreat sound more like a few days’ visit. Reading his conversations with the monks, a progressive reader will wonder about the historical misogyny of monasteries. Claassen’s attempts to deal with monasteries’ issues around women (and around same-sex relationships) never quite work.

But the author has stronger political analyses of other topics. At Assumption Abbey, Claassen considers a life fully engaged in the world and the politics of religious power. He writes of his experiences in Latin America and with a Catholic parish in Portland that participated in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, easing the burden of refugees from Central American countries torn apart by U.S.-funded wars. Despite this valuable history, Claassen stays focused on the life of the retreat. 

His narrative considers the monastery as community, messy as any other human endeavor but with a focus that makes it easier to deal with problems. The monks provide food for needy people in the area, and they provide space for renewal and contemplation for hundreds of people each year. Claassen connects Assumption Abbey to other religious practices, and his dream of a nondenominational “House of Silence” sounds both charming and grounded.

Changing the world requires regular recharge. The monks of Assumption Abbey work and pray hard, starting at 3:30 am — but they do it mostly in silence, which helps their visitors relax into clearer understanding. The book, a labor of love, shows that at least some faith-based organizations and some people within them understand how to help and, in retreat, how to heal.


William Claassen reads from Another World at 5 pm Saturday, Sept. 27, at Tsunami Books.

BOOK NOTES: Alex Cox discusses X-Films and screens his new film Searchers 2.0, 3 pm 9/28, Cinema 21, Portland. $6. Floyd Skloot reads from The Wink of the Zenith, 7:30 pm 9/28, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Kathleen Norris reads from Acedia and Me, 7:30 pm 9/29, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Emma Donoghue reads from The Sealed Letter, 7:30 pm 9/29, Powell’s on Hawthorne, Portland.