Spiritual Formation Books I Would Read Again

close up of a bible

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

The idea of spiritual formation is that the spiritual life is not a static experience but a project of growth. Formation literally suggests the shaping of our lives, our characters, our affections to reflect who or what we consider the ultimate. As you know, I write as a Christian, so the books I share here reflect what it means to follow and be formed in Christ. They are books I have found helpful in my own spiritual progress, and would visit again (and have in some cases).

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat. A wonderful guide to answer the invitation of Jesus to “come with me.” I’ve appreciated a number of works by this author but this is one I pull out whenever I plan a retreat.

Carmen Butcher (tr.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Butcher’s translation of this classic work sings. The author is unknown but leads us into the richness of contemplative prayer.

Michael Card, Inexpressible. The whole book is a study and meditation on one rich Bible word, hesed, referring to the covenant-keeping, lovingkindness of God.

Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life. Ford follows the practice of praying the hours to help us discover what it means to pay attention to God’s work throughout our days and all around us.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening. This was the first book that drew me to rather than repelled me from spiritual direction. Guenther is so unpretentious about the whole thing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal. The parable of the prodigal is such a profound story, and Nouwen’s use of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal takes us deeply into this story and what it means for our lives.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. The subtitle of this book is “The shape of pastoral integrity.” While I am not a church pastor, this book challenged me with suggesting that such integrity functions within a triangle of prayer, the reading of scripture, and the work of spiritual direction. He beckons away from the siren calls of charisma and technique.

Gordon T. Smith, Teach Us to Pray. A guide to prayer using our Lord’s prayer, taking us through three movements, of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren connects the extraordinary things we pray in our churches on Sunday with the ordinary events of our domestic daily lives.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard’s focus is less on the disciplines themselves that what is behind them, why we practice them. He contends:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” 

Nearly all of these writers have written other things, and I could have easily substituted other works. If you find one of these who is a good guide to you, keep reading their works. Above all, I think all of them would direct you to the ultimate formation book, perhaps obvious, but often neglected–The Bible.

Review: The Conscience

conscienceen

The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram

enneagram

Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram, Adele and Doug Calhoun, Clare and Scott Loughrige, foreword by Jerome Wagner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: More than just a discussion of Enneagram numbers, this handbook utilizes “harmony triads” to lead to greater spiritual and relational transformation, and offers recommendations for spiritual practices suitable for each number and triad.

There have been a host of books published in recent years on the Enneagram, including several from this publisher. This may be both the most comprehensive resource out there on the different numbers (the term used for your type), and one that takes a novel approach using what the authors call “harmony triads.” Unlike traditional approaches that have arrows to and from a number reflecting where one goes under conditions of integration or disintegration, this approach uses triangles where each number connects to a number three ahead or behind it, allowing access to what are called the Gut, the Heart, and the Head triads. For example, someone who is Enneagram number 2, called Love here (in the Heart Triad), also has access to the Wisdom of a 5 and the Strength of an 8. The writers repeatedly emphasize that we are all more than our number, and that balancing the strengths of head (IQ), heart (EQ), and gut (GQ) helps us move toward greater integration and relational wholeness, and away from the vice of our number.

After providing a brief overview and section on key terms (important to keep a bookmark in for reference), the book devotes a chapter to each number beginning with a description and seven sections:

  1. Who am I and who am I not. Offers a list of descriptors and invites us to sit with these and how they resonate.
  2. True self and false self. Describes how we act under impulsive and compulsive reactions stemming from our own ego, and how we may act out of love of God, ourselves and others.
  3. Harmony. How to integrate Head, Heart, and Gut for our type leading to FLOW (Free, Loving, Open to head, heart, and gut), With God and reality as it is).
  4. Healing childhood hurts. Helps each number process where they were dismissed as a child and experience healing.
  5. Discernment: desolations and consolations. How to use each of our intelligences to understand how we experience the presence and absence of God.
  6. Spiritual rhythms. Practices that address each number.
  7. Empathy. This is especially for others close to a person of a particular number, helping in understanding that number with practical pointers for relating to that number.

The last part of the book offers twelve “soul resources.” Most offer unique information for each number, for example how each number may STOP (See, Triggers, Open, Presence) in the face of stress. I found the varied responses of different numbers to silence and solitude both amusing, and painfully on the money. There are several for different types of prayer, one for examen, one for practicing the presence of God, one on work styles, a summary chart of the harmony triads, tips for finding one’s Enneagram number, and small group discussions for using the empathy section of each chapter.

This is not a book to read straight through. Reading slowly and reflectively through each number helps us exercise better empathy for each number, and can be helpful for the person who does not yet know there own number. Working section by section through one’s own number, and the other two numbers in one’s “harmony triad”  can offer much self-understanding. Woven through the seven sections in each chapter are personal testimonies of people with that number and their transformational journey. Also, each chapter has several scripture readings and prayers woven throughout.

All four of the authors (two couples) are Enneagram instructors and it is evident that this text comes out of countless seminars and personal interactions, and reflects that kind of wisdom. Because this is not an introductory Enneagram book, they only spend a brief time on background of the Enneagram and do not offer a rationale for the use of the Enneagram. I would recommend this for someone who believes the Enneagram to be a useful tool for self-understanding and spiritual growth. For me, the harmony triads, or at least the integration of head, heart, and gut made good sense. I found the adaptation of spiritual practices to each number and the empathy section on relating to each number most helpful. Overall, I think this is one of the best resources that I’ve seen in print for groups and individuals who want to go deeper with the Enneagram.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mindful Silence

mindful silence

Mindful SilencePhileena Heuertz (Foreword by Richard Rohr, OFM; afterword by Kirsten Powers). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018.

Summary: Part narrative, part instruction, this work traces the author’s experience of “deconstruction” and how Christian contemplative practice enabled a deeper relationship with God and knowledge of herself.

Phileena Huertz and her husband worked with a humanitarian organization dealing with the victims of war in Sierra alone, encountering horrors that challenged everything she believed. God seemed silent. She was introduced to Father Thomas Keating, and through him, to the practices of contemplative prayer and the long Christian tradition behind these practices. She describes her experience as one of awakening from sleepwalking, and in turn dying to a false self, to enter into the resurrection life.

This led Huertz eventually to found her own ministry, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. In the book, Huertz traces her journey, with practices for the reader to engage at the end of each chapter:

  • Withdrawing to Engage: She describes her time at Gethsemani Abbey, the writing of Thomas Merton, and how solitude reveals the false self. Practice: Breath Prayer
  • Finding Liberation by Discernment: She writes about the Ignatian exercises, how we hear God, and experience Him in our bodies, through the scriptures and the consolations and desolations in our lives. Practice: Examen
  • Discovering Darkness is Light: She introduces us to St. John of the Cross and The Dark Night of the Soul and how we may move from talking to God to Being with God to Being one with God. Practice: Lectio Divina
  • Exploring a Deep Well: On a visit to Assisi, she discovers Clare, the contemplative “deep well” to Francis’s “raging river” and how the two together show the power of linking contemplation and action. Practice: Labyrinth
  • Dying for Life: She narrates a meeting of contemplatives with Father Keating as he was dying, and work with the dying with Mother Teresa. Practice: Welcoming Prayer (where one welcomes and then lets go of each of the sensations and emotions of the body).
  • Unknowing to Know: She discusses The Cloud of Unknowing and the practice of Apophatic prayer, that is prayer without words, describing at type of “knowing” that “is about analyzing less and loving more.” Practice: Centering Prayer.

The concluding chapter is an invitation to wake up, through contemplative practice and concludes with encouragements to unplug, get out into nature, and to adopt a puppy! On this last, Huertz movingly describes the impact of owning a dog has had in her life.

The power of this book is addressing the challenge of “deconstruction” many of us face, often at mid-life when our spiritual beliefs and practices no longer seem to work. We want to know and commune with God, and not simply know about God. We want to find the inner resources to sustain our lives, particularly as we age. We discover that we need to listen to our bodies. The discussions and practices in this book engage all these issues and I would say that a number of these have proven meaningful in my own journey.

At the same time, I find myself unable to fully endorse this book because it seems to me to depart from the center of Christian orthodoxy to embrace a more eastern worldview. A key passage that was concerning to me was this:

“In direct contrast to a widely accepted theory of atonement, I was led to let go of redemptive violence in exchange for redemptive suffering. This sheds great light on the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and how it applies in our daily life. The cross reveals a way to hold the tension of pain, suffering, paradox, and evil. In this way, we learn how to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). When we hang in the tension between good and evil, we are stretched, and it feels like a psychological and spiritual crucifixion. But this alone is what will bring forth resurrected life–the kind of life that in the face of pain, suffering, and evil can genuinely extend hope, healing, and love.” (p. 143)

The author doesn’t name it, but it seems she is repudiating the idea of substitutionary atonement (with an interesting rhetorical turn of language describing it as “redemptive violence”). As I read and re-read this passage, it seems that Jesus dies only to offer a way of living in the tension of suffering and evil, an example of living with (and dying with) unresolved pain. Furthermore, there is a discussion of “oneness” or even “at-one-ment” that seems very different that biblical ideas of our union with Christ. The oneness of this book is oneness of body-mind-spirit, oneness with the world around us, and oneness with God that seems to this reader more the oneness of pantheistic monism than Christian theism. Is the cross even necessary for such oneness?

What troubles me is that contemplative spirituality as it is cast in this book (and I have not found this true with all writers in the Christian contemplative tradition) seems to suggest a way of salvation apart from the cross of Christ. Kirsten Power’s afterword seems to confirm this when she says, “But you don’t need to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to benefit from this teaching. Contemplative spirituality is for everyone.” (p. 176). I’ve been similarly concerned about some of the more recent writings of Father Richard Rohr (for example, Falling Upward, reviewed here). Rohr is one of Huertz’s mentors and writes the foreword to this book, and I fear Huertz evidences similar tendencies in her own thought.

I regret raising these issues because there is much of value in the traditions and practices Huertz advocates. Huertz believes in linking contemplation and action but seems to oppose contemplation and theological acuity, a divide that seems prevalent in the separate circles of theological reflection and contemplation. I would propose a tripod of contemplation, theological reflection and activism as a far more powerful paradigm. Might that be possible?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mirror for the Soul

Mirror for the Soul

Mirror for the SoulAlice Fryling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2017.

Summary: An explanation from a Christian perspective of the Enneagram and its use in spiritual formation, helping us to live out of our gifting, recognize our blind spots, and experience the grace of God.

Perhaps all of us have asked the question asked by Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “Who in the world am I?” Alice Fryling proposes that the Enneagram is a useful tool for not only understanding ourselves but for living out of our giftedness and experiencing Christ’s grace.

Her aim in this book is to offer a thoroughly Christian treatment of the Enneagram (ennea = nine and gram = points, reflecting the nine pointed diagram that is basic to all discussions of the Enneagram). In addition to explaining the different aspects of the Enneagram, each chapter offers both questions for reflection, and a personal meditation from scripture. Most significantly, Fryling understands each of the home spaces on the Enneagram in terms of the gifted true self (the self as God intends us), the compulsion of the false self, and the grace of God enabling us to find our way back to the true self for our type.

After a brief explanation of the nine spaces, she focuses on what she sees as one of the basic insights we gain from the Enneagram, the distinction between the true and false self evident in each of the types. She writes:

“The false self is the person we think we should be but are not. It is the person we want others to think we are. The false self perpetuates the illusion that we are able to love perfectly, to be wise and all-knowing, and to be in control of life. The false self thrives on success and achievement. The problem is not that the false self is a bad person. The problem is that the false self is a façade. It is an imitation of God that we “use” to impress others. The false self languishes in pretense and in grasping for abilities and gifts that are not ours to have. The true self, on the other hand, truly expresses the gifts God has given us to love well” (p. 25).

Fryling then goes on to explain the various aspects of the Enneagram–the three triads of heart, head, and gut, how we might begin to identify our home space, and how our “wings” and “arrows” add to our self-understanding. Having read a number of Enneagram book, Fryling’s explanations of these aspects were among the clearest I’ve encountered, no doubt resulting from the many workshops the author has led on this material. In particular, I found her counsel for identifying our “home space,” often just assumed, or reduced to a questionnaire, particularly helpful:

“As happy as inventories might be to tell you your number, most of them require a good deal of self-awareness, something our false self does not want us to have. I’d like to suggest that instead of turning to inventories, you spend some time in quiet reflection, thinking about yourself and what you’ve learned about the Enneagram. Look for places where you already see yourself. Notice where there are clusters of truth about who you are. Be patient with the process. In fact, you might consider this ‘dating the Enneagram.’ You do not need to ‘marry’ the first space you think might work for you. Try it on. Live with it for a while. But let go of it if it doesn’t fit. Remember that the Enneagram is supposed to reflect who you are, not dictate who you are” (p. 98).

She also advises sharing descriptions of the different spaces with those who know us well to get their insights, discuss what makes sense and what seems confusing.

Her concluding chapters explore the Enneagram through the lens of the biblical account of creation, fall, and redemption. Then she goes a step deeper and explores the issue of our compulsions, the addictions inherent in each type, and how these drive us to the truth of scripture and the grace of God. Facing our need leads us to the hope of transformation through God’s grace, which often comes through suffering, silence, and surrender. She invites us into practices of engaging scripture that deepen this transformative process.

The strengths of this book are not only the clear explanations of the different aspects of the Enneagram, but the thoughtful Christian perspective that transforms this from a self-help tool where we try to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” to a formational resource leading us into a deeper experience of the grace of God in our lives. This book invites an unhurried process of discovering something more of an answer to Alice’s question (“Who in the world am I?”) for the reader who will take the time to work through its chapters, reflection questions, and meditations.

Review: The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018.

Summary: A classic on contemplative prayer in a new modern translation.

The Cloud of Unknowing is perhaps one of the greatest works on contemplative prayer. We don’t know the author but it was written in the 14th century in Middle English. This edition is a re-publication of a 2009 translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher in an inexpensive paperback format.

It seems that many of the spiritual classics we read come to us in stuffy, Victorian English. Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.

To give you both a sense of the work and the significance of the title, here is a brief passage in which the author describes the experience of beginning to contemplate:

The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So be sure to make your home in the darkness.”

One of the critical themes running through the work, true to the apophatic tradition out of which it comes, is that God cannot be known with our minds but only in our love–“we can’t think our way to God.” Contemplation is best pursued according to this author by simple reflection on a single word–“sin” and “God” are the two commended to us. He discourages trying to attain an experience of God through the senses, and encourages dismissing both our thoughts and feelings into a “cloud of forgetting.”

What I found attractive in this work is its wisdom and sense. We are assured that longing for God is enough, as this will open us to a deeper understanding of God. He discourages strenuous physical exertions that enervate and weaken us. He stresses the value of pursuing our contemplation accompanied by a spiritual director. He identifies four stages of spiritual maturity, with no sense that one is “better” than another, but only reflect a progress in love for God:

  • The ordinary which is our active life in the world
  • The special, where one continues to live an active life but also longs for God and begins to contemplate.
  • The singular is where contemplation becomes the focus of one’s life, praying without ceasing in love toward God.
  • The perfect, where we are with God, as we pass from this life into God’s presence.

The work itself consists of 75 brief “chapters” often connected to one another, that seems especially fitted for devotional reading of one or a few chapters a day.

Butcher’s translation includes an introductory essay and recommendations for further reading, including renderings in the Middle English, works on English mysticism and Christian mysticism more broadly, as well as reference resources. Her notes also offer explanations for her translation and other helpful background.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried LeaderAlan Fadling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017/

Summary: Proposes that influential spiritual leadership that bears lasting fruit arises out of unhurried life in God’s presence that results in unhurried presence in the lives of those one leads.

Leadership can be demanding. People come from many directions with needs, agendas, and sometimes, criticism. To-do lists are longer than there are hours in the day. One may feel they have to run faster and faster, even as energy seems to be draining away. In more reflective moments, we might ask, are the people we lead maturing as Christ-followers, more effectively able to use their gifts and engage their world? That is, if we get a chance to ask the question in the midst of a hurried life.

Alan Fadling doesn’t think we will ever evade these demands. Rather, his thesis is that leadership that bears lasting fruit comes out of unhurried time in the presence of God that both fills us, and overflows into our leadership life. Most of all, he contends that when we cultivate this unhurried life with God, it allows us to come along people as an unhurried presence, able to wait and listen for what God is doing in their lives and through our encounter with them.

A key verse for Fadling is Isaiah 30:15:  “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Fadling writes:

“…Isaiah said that we’ll find salvation—help, wholeness, or rescue—in repentance and rest. He said that we’ll find strength—power, influence, and energy—in quietness and trust. Unhurried leaders are different.

  • Rather than fill their lives with noise, unhurried leaders make time for silence in which to listen (quietness).
  • Rather than allow anxiety to drive them, unhurried leaders learn to depend on a reliable God who invites them to join a good kingdom work already well underway (trust).
  • Rather than tackle self-initiated projects under the guise of doing them for God, unhurried leaders humbly orient themselves to the Leader of all, learning to take their cues from him (repentance).
  • Unhurried leaders also learn to rest as hard as they work.
  • Rather than measuring the productivity of their lives only in terms of what they do, unhurried leaders understand the importance of certain things they don’t do.”

Fadling walks us through what he has learned about leading out of abundance, allowing God’s living water to flow through us. He invites us to “come, listen, buy, and eat” in God’s presence, and to cultivate practices of contemplating God’s greatness where we open ourselves to a vision of God from which we lead. “Questions that Unhurry Leaders” was a delightful chapter that was not what I expected but rather a reflection on the wonderful questions Paul asks in Romans 8.

He turns to how our unhurried life with God flows into unhurried influence in leadership. He explores how developing fruitful leaders takes time–not trying to pursue quick, but not abiding fruit. He talks about how grace empowers us, as God meets and works through us in our weakness. Grace doesn’t make us strong, but rather we are strong in God’s grace in our weakness.

One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is the relentless stream of thoughts that hurry through our heads. Fadling offers a practice of noticing, discerning, and responding, allowing God into our thoughts–both those unworthy of us, and those that are, in fact, his promptings. This takes us into a life of prayer, in which our primary influence comes through prayer, and in which we do our work “with God,” which has the power to transform our “to do” lists–not necessarily by shortening them, but by allowing us to rest in God rather than anxiously work. He ties all this up by proposing a cycle of contemplation, discernment, engagement, and reflection that may become a rhythm of unhurried leadership.

Fadling helps us “try out” this unhurried leadership life through practices in each chapter as well as reflective questions that help us examine our own leadership. I took this book with me on a recent retreat and found the content, the practices, and the questions all helpful in reflecting on my own leadership journey. Most of all, he reminded me of the foundational truth that I learned as a student leader, and am still learning that he succinctly sums up:

“The secret of my spiritual leadership is God.”

Fadling helps us to examine our own leadership and ask if God is really enough for us. He helps us consider whether our leadership is simply a function of technique and skill, done in our own strength, often leading to hurried drivenness, or whether it is the unhurried leadership that is the overflow of abundant life with God. This is a great book to read for personal renewal, and even better with a team of leaders who can think together how they might encourage each other in the “unhurry” practices Fadling commends. The rest and refreshment both leaders and those they lead experience will more than amply repay the cost and time spent on this book.

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Visit my review of Alan Fadling’s earlier book, An Unhurried Life.

Review: Invitation to Retreat

Invitation to Retreat

Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018.

Summary: A guide to retreat as a spiritual practice exploring why retreat, preparing for retreat, helpful practices on retreat, and concluding our retreat and returning from (and to) retreat.

Jesus gives a startling invitation to his disciples in Mark 6:30-31. He said, “Come away to a deserted place…and rest a while.” Wouldn’t you love an invitation like that? Ruth Haley Barton proposes in this book that this is an invitation Jesus extends to each and every one of us. She encourages us to embrace retreat as a formational practice. She explains what she means as follows:

“Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention; it is, as Emilie Griffin puts it, “a generous commitment to our friendship with God.” The emphasis is on the words extended and generous. Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives, which means we’ve gotten pretty good at giving God twenty minutes here and half an hour there. And there’s no question we are better for it!

But many of us are longing for more—and we have a sense that there is more if we could create more space for quiet to give attention to God at the center of our beings. We sense that a kind of fullness and satisfaction is discovered more in the silence than in the words, more in solitude than in socializing, more in spaciousness than in busyness. “Times come,” Emilie Griffin goes on to say, “when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding, but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.”

Barton goes on in this book to offer extensive practical help in various aspects of taking retreats, from preparing to retreat and facing our exhaustion (including encouraging us to sleep until we naturally awaken on retreat if possible). She addresses the rhythms of retreat and even offers a suggested daily schedule. She gives help on prayer during the retreat including fixed hour prayers. She addresses the challenge of letting go, unplugging and the deeper issue of relinquishing our false-self patterns. For those familiar with the Enneagram, she suggests particular false-self patterns we may relinquish for each Enneagram type. She discusses the chance retreat gives us for discernment, for paying attention to our life situation and how God may be leading. There is practical help for re-entering our lives.

Throughout, Barton relates personal experiences in retreat, discussions with spiritual directors, insights as she reflects on scriptures, her own practices, including taking time to exercise during retreats (something I’m inclined to forget!), and some of her personal compulsions and how retreat has been an important factor in God’s transformative work in her life. Each chapter concludes with a “Practicing Retreat” page with questions we may use in preparing for or engaging in our retreat. Three “interludes” break up the content with poetry for reflection and prayer. Appendices offer a form of fixed hour prayers and practical considerations such as choosing a retreat location, our intention, and even what to pack.

This is a slim book is full of wisdom and practical insights like the following:

“Many of us are wasting our life’s energy fighting for things that aren’t that important in the whole scheme of things. There are times when the quiet of retreat is the only way we will be able to discern well what battle we should be engaging and how.”

As I husband energies that wane with age, I can’t afford to waste them on unimportant battles. Mercifully, Jesus invites me to come away with Him.  Barton’s book reminded me of that pending invitation. It is one I will turn to as I prepare for retreat. And its convenient size makes it the perfect book to pack, to hold, to use in reflection, on retreat.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Reckless Way of Love

the reckless way of love

The Reckless Way of LoveDorothy Day, edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Introduction by D. L. Mayfield. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A collection of Dorothy Day’s writings on following Jesus in the ways of faith, love, prayer, life, and community.

One thinks of Dorothy Day as an activist writer and advocate for the poor, running homes of hospitality, communes, and getting arrested even in her seventies. What is less apparent is the deep spirituality that sustained her activism. This book, one of Plough’s Spiritual Guides, distills writings from her different books that cumulatively describe the ordinary life of following Jesus among the poor.

The excerpts are organized around five “ways” or themes: of faith, of love, of prayer, of life, and of community.

In the chapters on faith, we encounter both her implicit belief in the mysteries of the faith and the sacraments, and yet her struggle to trust and depend in the welter of daily interactions and work. She writes,

“I suppose it is a grace not to be able to have time to take or derive satisfaction in the work we are doing. In what time I have, my impulse is to self-criticism and examination of conscience, and I am constantly humiliated at my own imperfections and at my halting progress. Perhaps I deceive myself here, too, and excuse my lack of recollection. But I do know how small I am and how little I can do and I beg you, Lord, to help me, for I cannot help myself” (pp. 14-15).

Often, Day’s reflections come with pithy challenges. We see the intensity of her love for God and the wonder that God sets his love on the likes of us and then observes, “It is a terrible thought–‘we love God as much as the one we love the least’ ” (p.36). Or she surprises us with her breaks with convention such as when she writes on prayer: “I do not have to retire to my room to pray. It is enough to get out and walk in the wilderness of the streets” (p. 44).

“The way of life” reminds us “never to get discouraged at the slowness of people or results” (p. 63). She writes of deepening perceptions of unworldly justice that does not seek its own, that for a Christian social order, “we must first have Christians” (p.66), and how, apart from the light of Christ, we often do not know ourselves or our secret sins. She writes at length on the indispensable role of suffering in our lives.

The final portion focuses on life in community. Day writes of efforts in community with grittiness and realism. Disappointments. Betrayals. Plain hard work and long hours. Yet even so, she longs for bigger houses, more room for discussions, a library, “a Christ room.” She recognizes desperately her need for the presence of God in all the ordinary places. In the end, it is community that addresses our desolation. She concludes, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community” (p. 120).

This is the second book in the Spiritual Guides series I’ve reviewed, the earlier being The Scandal of Redemption by Oscar Romero. These are small books only in size. Each is well-edited by Carolyn Kurtz. This, in particular, required culling passages from a number of Day’s works along each of the themes into coherent chapters. Eye-catching cover art, end papers, and typography make these delightful books to hold and read.

I found myself often mulling over a single line, such as this one: “We have the greatest weapons in the world, greater than any hydrogen or atom bomb, and they are the weapons of poverty and prayer, fasting and alms, the reckless spending of ourselves in God’s service and for his poor” (p.69). I mused again and again what a different face Christians would present to the world if we lived as Day did rather than jockeying for positions and influence and concealing our flawed character rather than exposing it to the grace of God. Reading Day gives me hope that ordinary Christians with all our flaws and struggles may yet walk the ways of faith, hope, and love, offering something beautiful for God and to the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Born to Wander

Born to Wander

Born to WanderMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the theme of our pilgrim identity as followers of Christ, and how this makes sense of the seasons of transition and loss, and struggles for control in our lives.

It seems we spend our lives searching and longing for home. We move, we change jobs, churches, and sometimes, relationships. We experience transition and loss. Sometimes the restlessness is an inner one–a longing for God knows what. Michelle Van Loon, a writer who has know seasons of transition, dislocation, and loss in her own life, suggests that instead of efforts to control our lives and settle, these longings point us as Christians to our identity as members of a pilgrim people longing, and wandering toward our true home.

In this book, Van Loon explores three kinds of pilgrimage:

  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on every day obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasizes a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude, and contemplation.  (p. 14)

In the eleven chapters that follow this introduction Van Loon explores this idea of pilgrimage through a combination of biblical reflection, personal narrative, and formative insights. Uprootedness is explored through the life of Noah, sentness through Abraham, being waylaid on the journey through Israel’s Egyptian years and displacement through Israel’s wilderness wanderings and grumblings. The warnings Israel is given as they cross Jordan remind us of the two ways we might choose, and the hope of restoration, even when we choose wrongly.

Van Loon speaks tellingly of the subtle ways idolatries divide us from God and others. She observes:

“…I’d like to suggest that most of us have a personalized collection of housebroken idols vying for our love every single day.”

She especially singles out our idolatry of nuclear families, and how difficult this idolatry is for those who are single.

She speaks of the importance of remembering, here as elsewhere using word studies to explore several passages (Josiah’s kingship, Lamentations, Psalm 137) to consider how remembering leads us into pilgrimage. In “Trekked” she explores the value of physical pilgrimages, particularly to “thin” places where we might experience the sacred. “Sojourned” considers the journey of the disciples following Christ. She warns of how reaction to preserve ourselves in a decadent culture might divert us from the pilgrim life:

“A desire for self-preservation is a reaction against a decaying culture. A reaction is not a calling–and it is not an option for a pilgrim. We walk toward God not in reaction, but in response to His invitation to follow, no matter where He leads.”

She concludes in her chapter “Revealed” with the use of the word “Come” –the invitation to follow but also the revelation that the bridegroom is coming for his bride, that becomes the pilgrim’s cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Pilgrimage is not hopeless wandering, but a journey toward the day when we will truly be welcomed home,

What I most appreciated about this work is that it reflects a second half of life spirituality–a spirituality that moves beyond the first flush of life in Christ, new jobs, homes, and marriages. It is a spirituality for those who have lived long enough to get beaten up by life at times and who are wondering how to live when the old answers don’t work as well anymore. Where do we go when we experience disillusionment, when the rising career trajectory crashes and burns, when the group we felt so close with scatters? Van Loon’s openness about her own experiences invites us to explore how these disrupting and displacing experiences may be God’s way of calling us into a deeper journey with him, one that involves leaving the homes of self-protection and control for the uncertainty of trusting to God’s protection and leading on pilgrimage.

The book is designed for personal reflection with questions and writing space at the end of each chapter and a prayer that expresses back to God and personalizes the themes of the chapter. There are so many places where we face the choice of clinging to the safe and familiar, even as circumstances may be wresting these from our arms; or choosing to step into the unknown of a pilgrim journey. This book make a good companion for those considering embarking on that journey.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.