Review of The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life TodayThe Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book will most appeal to Roman Catholics and fans of John Michael Talbot. I read it because I am a JMT fan, having listened to his music my whole life, and having read three of his other books (The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily LifeThe Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, The Music of Creation: Foundations of a Christian Life, and Reflections on St. Francis) — and I am a Patristics scholar. I was interested to see what this Francisco-Benedictine musician had to say about the Church Fathers. Oh, and I was pretty sure the book deserved better than a single one-star review on amazon.co.uk!

However, I can see why someone might be disappointed by this book. It honestly does not do what it is advertised as doing, not even what the Foreword by Cardinal Donald Wuerl says. It is not an introduction to the Church Fathers. Not by a long shot. This is part memoir, part invitation to the Fathers, part personal and devotional discourse on the Fathers. Furthermore, the sayings and teachings of the Fathers have been digested thoroughly by Talbot’s own life experience as a modern Roman Catholic; this results in them sometimes being taken at face value, and the book often reads, for example, as though he unproblematically assumes that Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop the same way John Chrysostom was a bishop 300 years later.

What we do see as we read, though, is a vision of the historic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as being the successors to the Fathers. Talbot is aware of the ‘development’ of tradition — he believes, then, the fullness of the Patristic trajectory is found in Roman Catholicism. Therefore, what he is finding in the Fathers is not always the same things their ancient readers or hearers would have found. Instead, what he finds is wisdom for today that speaks to the Roman Catholic soul, finding either timeless gems or modern readings that are themselves worth pondering.

That may sound patronising or damning with faint praise. I hope not! I, myself, read the Fathers in my own context for their wisdom. Certainly, the great historical analyses of the Fathers that expound what they meant in their context, what the causes and effects of their tradition were, are of great value. That’s what some of us get paid to do. But all of us, as Christians, should also ask: What is the perennial wisdom and value in the Church Fathers? This is what Talbot offers. Furthermore, you can tell that Talbot, too, has profited from historical-critical research into the Church Fathers.

The book begins with the story of the fire of 2008 that destroyed the main building of Little Portion Hermitage, including the library and archives and monuments to Talbot’s recording career. And thus a rediscovery afresh of the community’s, and Talbot’s, own fathers. Then we learn a bit about how Talbot came to Roman Catholicism, and his time amongst Franciscans before founding the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, and taking us through various themes of his life and career to today, when he is an itinerant teacher. Throughout, he offers some of his favourite teachings, fathers, and texts and discusses how they have influenced his life and spiritual journey as a Roman Catholic.

In this book you’ll be introduced to the Didache, St Ignatius of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, St Diadochus of Photiki, St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Irenaeus of Lyons, as well as a host of others more cursorily. I had hoped for more discussion of the content of Chrysostom, as well as of mystagogy — his chapter on mystagogy is more of an example of mystagogy for the Mass as celebrated in the USA today. I had also hoped for a wee bit more on St Benedict (I guess I’ll have to read his book Blessings of St. Benedict for that!

In the end, I would recommend this to a Catholic friend or fellow fan of JMT (as I said at the top) who is curious about how we can live in the light of the Fathers today. Demonstrating that point is something that JMT has done admirably, and I hope we can all come to a place where we have become so suffused with Scripture and tradition that the Fathers come naturally to mind at any time.

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3 thoughts on “Review of The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

  1. Wel,l I am not a fan of JMT – in fact I have to say totally ignorant of the man! Should I know more??!
    (I am going to buy the book anyhow since I can pick it up on Amazon for 1.68!)

    What would you recommend I read to be informed of the “Old Lessons from the Church Fathers” please?

    With many thanks and best wishes from sunny Leicester!

    • Hi Martin! I’ve been thinking on this question for a few days, and I’ll probably write a wee post about it. At the moment, I would recommend Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers as the best single-volume, truly introductory book about the Church Fathers. A lot of other books are either too deep and exhaustive for the average non-specialist layreader, or they are not quite as broad as I would like. And Ramsey’s book currently has a copy on sale on amazon.co.uk for £0.15!

      The other single-volume option is the classic narrative of the ancient church, Henry Chadwick’s Penguin The Early Church; although scholarship has superseded him on some individual points, he is still right often enough and gets the big picture clearly enough that he’s worth a read.

      Finally, I enjoy JMT’s music enormously. His music has a bit of a folksy style to it, sometimes touched by the tradition of Catholic sacred music. He incorporates a lot of Scripture into his music; one of his albums includes some beautiful adaptations of the poetry of the mystics, such as St John of the Cross. His books are also pretty good; they are accessible presentations of the relevance of certain themes from the tradition for moderns; a couple on St Francis, one on St Benedict, another on the mystics. He has a book on meditation and a book about the New Monasticism of today.

      You are most welcome; we had sun in Edinburgh yesterday, but now it’s back to grey skies!

  2. Thank you so much – really kind of you. I have ordered this book today for only GBP 0.12 – so I have saved 3p!!

    Where do you guys get ’em from!! I mean Boniface??? I have never, ever met anyone called Boniface (I am an oncologist so get to meet lots of different people – but never a Boniface!) Anyhow, I look forward to reading his book!!

    I have held off from JMT, whom I must assume is an American?? I am afraid his music and I failed to agree!! Although his beard is really rocking!

    All best wishes and many thanks

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