M. Basil Pennington
July 23, 1931 - June 3, 2005

Parts of this article are excerpted from "Abbot Pennington Dies; Renowned For Ministry" by Pamela Reidy, Catholic News Service, The Georgia Bulletin of the Atlanta Archdiocese, June 16, 2005 (Newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese)

Abbot M. Basil Pennington, the Trappist monk known worldwide for his books and ministry of centering prayer, died June 3 at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester from injuries he sustained in a car accident 67 days earlier.

It is perhaps fitting that Basil died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, since as one friend said, "He had the biggest and most loving and sacred heart of any human being I have ever known." Basil would have been 74 in July. His death was celebrated with a funeral Mass and burial at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.

Born in the New York borough of Queens on July 28,1931, he attended Cathedral Prep High School and the Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Brooklyn from 1945 to 1950. He entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly called the Trappists, in 1951 at St. Joseph's Abbey, his lifelong community.

Basil was consecrated as a monk in 1956 and ordained a priest in 1957. He later studied in Rome at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas and Gregorian University, obtaining a licentiate in theology and another degree in canon law. At Spencer Abbey, Father Pennington was a professor of theology, canon law and spirituality. He was active on his order's law commission and was instrumental in beginning the International Cistercian Studies Symposium. He also was director of vocations at Spencer from 1978 to 1981.

During the 1970s, Basil's deep fascination with Eastern and Russian Orthodoxy earned him an unprecedented invitation to Mount Athos in Greece, a renowned center of Orthodox monasticism. His extended stay there resulted in his book "O Holy Mountain: Diary of a Visit to Mount Athos," published by Doubleday in 1978.

Basil also became deeply rooted in the practice of centering prayer, a Christian form of meditation. He first learned about centering prayer in Spencer from Father William Meninger and later came to be considered an authority on it. He often said he felt the contemplative dimension of prayer was a neglected part of the Catholic tradition.

Over his lifetime, Basil wrote 57 books and 1,000 articles, particularly on centering prayer. He also founded Cistercian Publications in the 1960s to bring works of Cistercian authors and about Cistercian life to the English language and to a wider audience. Father Dominic Whedbee, prior of Spencer Abbey, said Basil "made Cistercian spirituality and tradition available to the broader church; he was gifted in articulating deep spiritual realities to ordinary people."

Throughout the 1980s, he lectured abroad and gave spiritual guidance in monasteries and retreat houses from Missouri to India to the Philippines. In 1991, he went to assist at Our Lady of Joy Monastery on Lantao Island near Hong Kong. In his work at other Cistercian abbeys he was known for his ability to raise funds for necessary renovations, establish money-making businesses to support the community, and increase the number of members entering the order.

Indeed, he was recognized for his gifts of presence, enthusiasm, empowerment, and enrollment. Everywhere he went, he increased vocations to the Cistercian order, including increasing the numbers of Cistercian nuns.

In July 1999, he returned to the United States. He was named temporary superior at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo., in February 2000. On August 1 of the same year, he was elected abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., becoming an abbot for the first time in his more than 40 years of religious life. In May 2002, resigned, saying he had helped the abbey during a transitional period and believed it was time for the monks to choose an abbot from within their community. He returned to Spencer in July of that year.

Basil served on many local, national and international committees and boards, including the International Cistercian Studies Conference and the Ecumenical Institute of Spirituality. He was on the editorial boards of Monastic Studies and Studies in Medieval Culture and was chairman of Cistercian Publications, 1973-76. He was on the advisory board for the Lilly Foundation and a member of the board of a number of other organizations.

Basil was one of the handful of individuals who founded the Mastery Foundation in the early 1980s and served until his death as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. He never wavered in his commitment to support and empower those whose lives are about sacred ministry -- or as he often said, "to wake the sleeping giants" of the world's religions. To him, life and ministry were rich, abundant gifts to be savored, enjoyed, and shared with all. Indeed, there was a larger-than-life quality about Basil. Years ago, he said the following about the power and the fruits of Centering Prayer, but it could just as easily be a statement of the experience of being with him.

  "You don't have to carry everything on your shoulders all the time. That's a great breakthrough for some people. This new vitalization within you. A sense of how much you're loved and how precious a person you are and that you can really make a difference -- you yourself, not what you do, not what you have, not what other people think of you, but you. You are presence. ... I simply am. And I'm a wonderful gift. And I can bring life, and love, and vitality to people. The tremendous freeing, the empowerment, the fullness, the source of being and life in us is able finally to be there as gift and life and hope to everybody. You reflect back to people then in a very pure way their own beauty, their own wonder and get them in touch with how much God really loves them. So it's a very, very powerful thing in our lives. It really transforms us, you know. It enables us to transform the space of ministry, where everything is possible."

Basil's ministry of presence and Centering Prayer was known all over the world and touched hundreds of thousands of lives. We give thanks for his life, for the privilege of knowing him, and for the countless gifts of love he gave us in such abundance.