The more monasteries try to distance themselves from the world, the more the world beats a path to their door. Nowadays, with the number of actual monks dwindling, interest in monastic spirituality is soaring. To find out why, Catholic writer Paul Wilkes spent a year visiting the Trappist community at Mepkin Abbey.

"Beyond the Walls" is structured as a series of essays on such monkish themes as chastity, obedience, and work, interwoven with snippets of the history of Catholic monasticism and accounts of Wilkes' own spiritual journey from Catholic schoolboy to dissolute bachelor to stock-taking family man. To Wilkes, the orderly, purposive, and contemplative life of the monastery suggests ways to satisfy our own yearning to commune with God and still engage the world. While monasteries are not the standard-bearers of Western Civilization that they were in the Middle Ages, Wilkes' absorbing book shows they still occupy a vital niche.

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