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.

Review: Recapturing the Wonder

Recapturing the Wonder

Recapturing the WonderMike Cosper. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores the disenchantment many Christians experience living in a modern secular age and the practices that may “re-enchant” our world with the supernatural presence of God.

Thoughtful commentators from Charles Taylor and Hannah Arendt to James K. A. Smith and David Foster Wallace have observed how we live in a disenchanted, disillusioned secular age. In this work Mike Cosper engages these commentators and how the disenchantment of the modern world affects Christians’ experience of the reality of God. He writes about the contrast between an enchanted world and a disenchanted one:

“Perhaps to best understand disenchantment, we can look at its opposite, the ‘enchanted’ world of a few centuries ago. In that world, men and women saw themselves as spiritual creatures, vulnerable to blessings and curses, to angels and demons, and subject to the god or gods who made and oversaw the world. This enchanted world was part of a Cosmos, an orderly creation full of meaning, a place with a purposeful origin and a clear destination, guaranteed by the god or gods who made it and rule over it. At the same time, this Cosmos is full of mystery, a place where our knowledge has its limits and an unseen spiritual realm is constantly at work, shaping our everyday experience.

In disenchantment, we no longer live in a Cosmos; we live in a universe, a cold, hostile place where existence is a big accident, where humanity is temporarily animated ‘stuff’ that’s ultimately meaningless and destined for the trash heap” (p. 11).

For many Christians, the Word of God becomes an abstraction–concepts rather than the living Word of the Living God, working in the world. What Mike Cosper seeks to do in this book is to explore both the corrosive effects of the secular world on our faith, and the practices through which we might recover a vibrant, transcendent faith whereby we recognize the presence of God in all of life.

Cosper begins with three chapters that chronicle the expressions of disenchantment in contemporary Christian life. After describing the disenchantment, he chronicles our modern efforts to self-justify through constructing a social media persona as our modern religious sacrifices that the God of grace mercifully brings to an end. Likewise, he reminds us of the recent focus of many churches on hype and spectacle instead of the slow, steady rhythms of grace by which we encounter God in the ordinary rhythms of life.

In the next three chapters, he commends several practices that break us out of the self-hype spectacles–solitude and secrecy, abundance and scarcity, and feasts of attention. He commends having a life beyond what we post on social media. He uses Lewis Hyde’s The Gift as a parable of living generously and honoring the gifts we receive as well as those we give. He invites us into a life where we feast on giving our attention to God’s world, and sometimes to feasts themselves.

The seventh chapter was of great interest. He looks at Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I was intrigued, having recently read the later (reviewed here). He suggests both were seeking transcendence, Merton through a rule of life, and Kerouac, through attentiveness in the moment. Recognizing the downsides of each lifestyle (most of us don’t live in the monastery, and Kerouac’s road was tremendously self-destructive), he suggests we need both.

Each of the chapters concludes with spiritual practices connected to the chapter. Cumulatively they help us focus on God in our hours, days, weeks, and years, and special seasons and feasts of the church. We learn examen, Ignatian prayer and praying the Psalms, practices of solitude and silence, fasting and feasting, and how to weave all of these into a rule of life. The author shares his own rule, one that struck me as marvelously do-able.

There are a number of books that have been written about our secular age. Likewise, a number have been written about spiritual practices. The particular gift of this book is the bringing of the two together, pointing to the importance of, and telos of these practices. Cosper helps us see that through them, we recover a sense of the greatness of God in the ordinary of our hours, days, weeks, and years–which make up a life. More than this, he captures something of the deep joy of secrecy, or a long leisurely feast with friends, or seeing an abstract Word come alive to us. One senses that you are walking alongside one who is recapturing the wonder of a transcendent God who is also immanent in our world–and that we may as well.

 

Review: The Path Between Us

The Path Between Us

The Path Between UsSuzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Formatio, 2018.

Summary: Using the tool of the Enneagram, this explores how each “number” interacts with the other numbers, how each number relates in stress, and security, and what is helpful for other “numbers” to understand about relating to a person with this number.

In The Road Back to You(review) Suzanne Stabile and her co-author Ian Cron give one of the most accessible explanations of the Enneagram that I have read. In this sequel, Suzanne Stabile builds on the insights of how each of the nine “numbers” on the Enneagram views and engages with the world uniquely and how this shapes the ways we build and maintain relationships with others, both those who share our “number” and those who differ (Enneagram types are summarized by the number for that type).

She begins by reviewing briefly the different numbers, the different Triads (Gut – 8, 9, 1; Heart – 2, 3, 4; Head – 5, 6, 7), the Wings (adjacent numbers to ours), and our Stress and Security numbers (those whose qualities we may draw on when we are under stress or feeling secure) and the three Stances (Aggressive – 3, 7, 8; Dependent – 1, 2, 6; and Withdrawing – 4, 5, 9). These are elaborated much more fully in The Road Back to You but also covered in the context of relationships in the following chapters.

Before discussing relationships for each number, Stabile offers very helpful advice for those concerned about the misuse of the Enneagram:

“First, please don’t use your Enneagram number as an excuse for your behavior. Second, don’t use what you’ve learned about the other numbers to make fun of, criticize, or stereotype, or in any way disrespect them. Ever. Third, it would be great if you would spend your energy observing and working on yourself as opposed to observing and working on others. And going forward, I hope you will share my desire that we all grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect” (p. 13).

The next nine chapters are devoted to looking at each number beginning with Eights (the Gut Triad). Each chapter begins with a story of an interaction involving a person with the number being considered. This is followed by a description of the world of this number, how they respond in relationships under stress and security, and the path together with this number. A sidebar in each chapter considers relationships between this number and each of the other numbers, including those sharing the same number. The chapter concludes with two summaries, one focused on key things a person with this number need to remember that they can, and can’t do in relationships and what they need to accept; and one focused on what others need to keep in mind in their relationships with a person with this number.

I found this book extremely helpful both for self-understanding, and understanding the ways I relate with others. In my case, I’m a Five. I value competence that comes through knowing, independence, privacy, and guarding my energies. I listen and observe well, but I’m not always good at communicating my feelings. Instead, I will tell you what I think. I learned that I’m not always good at picking up innuendo or indirect communication (true). Being laid up for a couple of months at the end of 2016 told me how hard it is for me to let others care for me, and the truth that the best way to live is neither dependent nor independent, but interdependent. Stabile’s title for my number really fit: “My Fences Have Gates.”

One critique I would offer of this book is that it assumes that a person knows their Enneagram number and doesn’t give much direction to the person who does not. There is a resource advertised at the end of the book on knowing your number but little guidance given about how one may go about discerning this. Stabile has been trained by Fr. Richard Rohr, whose approach is that one discerns one’s number as one reads the different types and finds one that makes you uncomfortably squeamish, saying “how did you know that about me?” That one is probably yours.

I know there are some who are critical of the Enneagram. I won’t try to defend this tool, except to say it has been useful for me and those I work with. Those who work with the Enneagram often like to say that the purpose of the Enneagram is not to put us in a box, but rather to help us understand the box we are in. Often, I’m tripped up by the things I don’t understand about myself. As I grow in self-understanding this opens up new dimensions in relationships with both people and God, and frees me to more skillfully use my gifts and pursue the things I care about. Only Jesus fully knows me, and can form me to be the person he envisions, both fully who I am, and in his image. The Enneagram has been one way among many he has used in this process. Stabile’s work is a great introduction to this way, this tool.

The Path Between Us Study Guide is a companion guide for both individuals and groups who want to pursue this material further. The six studies are titled:

  1. The Best Part of You Is the Worst Part of You
  2. What We Want
  3. What We Fear
  4. What We Offer
  5. Keeping Each Other Forgiven and Free
  6. Ways to Help Ourselves and Others

There is a section for those facilitating group discussions with a plan for each session. I have not used this guide so I cannot evaluate it. It appears that it can be used independently of reading the book, though I’m sure the book content will enrich discussions and insights.

The author has also recorded eight short YouTube clips accessible via the publisher’s website or through this link. I have to confess that the author photo gave me the impression of a stern school principal, an impression immediately dispelled in listening to her on the videos!

Stabile’s book and accompanying guide are the best resources I’ve seen for extending the framework of the Enneagram to our relationships and giving practical insights for relationships between the different numbers. As she has written, we all probably have much room to “grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect.” In her work, we have a wise and gracious guide for the 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.

 

Review: Practices of Love

practices of love

Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett (foreword by James K. A. Smith). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017.

Summary:  An approach to spiritual disciplines that explores how various spiritual practices not only nurture our relationship with God but shape our habits of being in the world including how we love our neighbors, and the rest of God’s creation.

This book is probably different than any book on spiritual disciplines I’ve read. What Kyle David Bennett does is turn the spiritual disciplines “on their side” and consider how these spiritual practices, often focused on deepening our love for God, are also meant to shape our life, and love, in the world.

Bennett builds on the insights of James K. A. Smith, who wrote the foreword to this book. Smith contends that the way we live is shaped be what we desire, or love (see my review of his You Are What You Love for more on this). Bennett extends Smith’s work in a couple ways. Smith particularly focuses on “cultural liturgies,” whether Christian, in the context of worship, or secular, shaped by our life in the world. Bennett focuses attention, rather, on spiritual disciplines, habits of faithfulness we often think of bringing us closer to God. Bennett shows how these, turned on their side reshape ways in which we live and love wrongly–selfishly, idolatrously and so forth. He believes much of our lives are spent eating, thinking, sharing, giving, owning, socializing, resting, and working. These occur with others, in the physical world. Disciplines like feasting and fasting, meditation, simplicity, solitude, silence, service, and sabbath are meant to shape the desires we pursue in these everyday endeavors along kingdom lines.

The other way Bennett extends Smith’s work, and a key insight for the wider conversation about spiritual formation is that these are meant to be ongoing disciplines and that they all are integral to our life in the world. They aren’t meant as simply retreat fare, or a spiritual “fix” when we need a spiritual pick-me-up. These “practices of love” only have a chance to re-order our loves and life in the world if woven into everyday life.

This is where Bennett gets very practical. Each chapter considers ways our lives may be malformed and how a particular discipline may transform our practice. For example, practices of simplicity move us from lavish living or squandering to loving neighbors with pockets and possessions. Each chapter concludes with a prayer and “side steps” that are practical and doable to incorporate the particular discipline in your life.

What I most appreciate about Bennett’s work is that he addresses what often seems like a disconnect between spiritual disciplines and everyday life. Also, he gets very practical. A small group, a discipleship group, or even church leadership team could work through this together. There is no grandiose vision here, but in Mother Theresa’s word, “small things done with great love.” I’ll conclude with Bennett’s words:

What I am trying to say is that we cannot underestimate the power of simply being loving people who live lives of love, We cannot overlook the value of being people who sacrifice in the littlest of things so that our neighbor can have a more comfortable and peaceful livelihood. We cannot diminish the value and necessity of simply being sensitive to what those around us expect and need. These are goods from which everyone can benefit” (p.177).

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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: Ignatian Spirituality A to Z

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Ignatian Spirituality A to ZJim Manney. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017.

Summary: An introduction to Ignatian spirituality in the form of a glossary of commonly used terms and key people.

Ignatian spirituality has been gaining in interest in recent years. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is steeped in this tradition. The hunger for a deeper spirituality extends far beyond Catholic circles and it is increasingly common to encounter some of the practices of Ignatian spirituality like examen or terminology like consolation and desolation in many retreat setting. Or you will hear of some who has done the spiritual exercises. It can all sound a bit like “inside baseball,” an experience author Jim Manney had. He looked for a guide that explained or defined these terms, and ended up writing it.

Manney has compiled an “A to Z” glossary of terms related to Ignatian spiritualty that includes history and biography of key figures from Ignatius, Xavier, and Peter Faber down to Fr. James Martin, Teilhard de Chardin, and Pope Francis, all Jesuits We learn the connection between the Society of Jesus and Ignatian spirituality. Manney has fun along the way. One of his entries is “Basketball,” highlighting the long tradition of outstanding Jesuit college teams, players, and coaches. He writes:

“Why this digression into basketball in a book about Ignatian spirituality? Because basketball is a city game, and cities are where you find Jesuits. The early Jesuits set up shop in the cities of Europe; the countryside was for monks and hermits. The Jesuits have been in the cities ever since. Most of the twenty-eight Jesuit colleges in the United States are located in urban areas, often right downtown. Basketball is a game of constant motion; it blends teamwork, individual skills, improvisation, and finesse. If you want a metaphor for Ignatian spirituality, basketball is a good one.”

Some of the terminology is in Latin, and some of it is important to understanding Ignatian spirituality. One example is agere contra, which means “do the opposite.” It is the idea that, when tempted, we desire the opposite, When tempted by riches, seek poverty. Engaging in self-pity? Go find someone to help. Another is cura personalis or “care of the entire person.” Unlike other traditions that sought spiritual progress through asceticism, Ignatius insisted that Jesuits live balanced lives and practice good self-care.

Along the way we learn that the Jesuits were suppressed for a time, for fear of their power both by secular rulers and in the church. And yet these were the missionaries of the church. The “Fourth Vow” is one of “special obedience to the sovereign pontiff with regard to missions.” At points, this vow aroused suspicion, and yet they’ve played a vital role in both the mission and reform of the church.

I found this the ideal guide for a “newbie” to Ignatian spirituality. Manney doesn’t assume anything, he keeps the text accessible and light-hearted (he even includes an entry on “Jesuit jokes”). Yet it is clear that as an editor for Loyola Press, a frequent speaker, and lay volunteer, we are learning from someone whose life has been shaped by the spirituality of which he writes. His book is no substitute for working with an Ignatian director. Rather, I suspect it will leave many wanting to.

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

Waking and Sleeping

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By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve come to think of those first and last moments of consciousness, before I rise in the morning, and before I drift off to sleep, as important bookends of my day. Too easily, I pick up the phone at the beginning of the day to check the news. Too easily, I end the day drifting off to sleep mid-sentence in whatever I’m reading.

So I’ve started two simple practices:

  1. When I awaken, before I do anything else besides shut off the alarm, I lay still and give thanks for God’s protection through the night and offer him myself and my day, including the specifics of it I know as well as all the things that will occur about which I don’t.
  2. And before I go to bed, rather than read, I simply take the last moments of consciousness to review the day, to thank God for all his mercies, to offer anything up that remains undone even though I am for the day, and to trust myself to his care.

I’ve been thinking more of late of how much of my days I go through without consciously being aware of God. I still find myself far from the Apostle Paul’s “praying without ceasing.” Sometimes perhaps, it is just a brain that finds it hard to be engaged both with the matters of the moment and to engage with God. But I suspect there are deeper habits of being that play into all this.

For now at least, I want to get the bookends in place. Then, perhaps, I can work on what is between them.

 

Review: Simple Prayer

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God.

I suspect that any of us who have set ourselves on the path of following Christ have struggled with prayer. For me it has been the movement from worrying about having the “right” words, to wrestling with things like prayer lists with long recitals of requests to beginning to wonder if I needed so many words and discovering that I didn’t need to fill the silences. Somewhere it dawned on me that the prayer the Lord taught his disciples can be spoken in fifteen seconds, and yet volumes have been written about it.

Charlie Dawes, in this book, observes that prayer can be simple, and yet not simplistic, that in prayer, deep can commune with deep without lots of words. Much like time with a person we love, we may enjoy a deep intimacy captured in a few words: “Lord have mercy,” “Your kingdom come,” “Forgive us our sins,” and “Father, forgive them.” In the Introduction to this book, Dawes writes,

“Simple prayers are all around us. They are found in Scripture. They are hidden in our daily lives. They swirl around our hearts and minds and rest on the tips of our tongues. Simple prayers are for both the novice seeker and the well-worn traveler on the journey of faith. Where do you find yourself at this moment? Are you new to faith? Have you been on this faith walk for years? Do you feel like you are losing your way? Do you feel the wind at your back propelling you into unchartered waters and have a rising anxiety about the unknown? Maybe you are looking for a way to deepen your prayer life. Then it is time to simply pray. We can trust that before we even articulate our thoughts, emotions, or needs, God already knows and desires to respond. A simple prayer paves the way for us to know and be known by God” (pp. 9-10).

The author begins by saying more about what he means by simple prayer, which is often the use of a single word, or short phrase, often drawn from scripture to capture  our particular longing for God and God’s presence. Then in succeeding chapters he writes about different simple prayers–the prayer of the heart, the prayer of faith, the prayer of forgiveness, the prayer of unity, the prayer of restoration, the prayer of finding your way.

Chapter seven focuses on simple words to pray–a single word or very short phrase. Here is one example:

“You know me. To be known by God is more than saying that God is aware of us; it is to say that God desires to inhabit every detail of our lives. God is not looking for a social media relationship with us, a relationship from afar. A need for intimacy is woven into us, and we all wander until we find our home in God. I remember watching the sitcom Cheers when I was younger. I loved when Norm would cross the threshold of the bar, and everyone greeted him with a loud, “Norm.” He was beloved, he was known. Take a moment and pray this simple prayer: You know me. Allow each repetition of this prayer to provide more and more assurance to your heart that you are indeed known by God. Your actions cannot undo this and you cannot earn it. You are not known as the sum of your skills or achievements. You are not embraced by the love of God because you have accumulated wealth or possess status. You are known because you are the beloved of God” (pp. 111-112).

What I appreciated about this work was that it articulated a way of praying focused less on methods or tasks, and more on intimacy with the one with whom we engage. It suggested what it might look like to “pray without ceasing” where we carry a word or phrase that we breathe before God throughout the day, like the Jesus prayer. This is prayer which liberates us from the temptation to “be heard for our many words,” tiresome for both the person praying and the one listening–what a mercy that God is so patient with so many of us! It is prayer without pretense or performance, just a few honest words that, like the Lord’s Prayer, may express volumes.

I don’t think this is all that may be said of prayer. Not all our models of prayer in scripture reduce to a word, a phrase or a few phrases. But if you have found the world of many words wearying and long for a more unvarnished, honest, and intimate relationship with God, these “simple prayers” may take you into new depths.

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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: Becoming Curious

becoming curious

Becoming Curious, Casey Tygrett (Foreward by James Bryan Smith). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Commends curiosity as essential to transformation and helps us cultivate the practice of asking questions as a spiritual practice.

Anyone who has been a parent knows there is a season of life where you probably answer a hundred questions a day from your growing child. As children grow and change by asking questions, we begin to settle into the role of being people who have life figured out enough to have “the answers.” That settling can be dangerous, as we harden in attitudes and dispositions. We cease to grow.

Casey Tygrett thinks that curiosity isn’t just for the young but rather an essential for growth and transformation at any age. He proposes that we need to become, not childish, but rather childlike, and that learning to ask questions, lots of questions, can be a spiritual practice that helps us cultivate curiosity, and that can be the doorway to change as we live with our questions before God.

His book is organized around different kinds of questions we might explore, and each chapter ends with a “questions journal exercise” that encourages us in this practice. Among the kinds of questions he explores is the searching question that Jesus asks both James and John, and the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” He encourages us to think of how we would answer, and what it would be like were Jesus to ask the question of us and what we would answer him. He considers questions of identity (“who do you say I am?”), questions of motivation (Why?), the question of the other, and what it means to love the other well (“Who is my neighbor?”), and the questions of failure (our own) and forgiveness (of ourselves and others). Finally he considers what is perhaps the hardest question, what it means to change, which often involves dying, resurrection, and ascension.

What impressed me so much about this book was how Tygrett comes at so many familiar passages with a fresh slant. Earlier, I wrote on his discussion of “repentance.” There his question is, what if we thought of repentance as an invitation rather than a command? I found this fresh slant in the chapter on failure, where he observes that Jesus doesn’t make Peter confess that he had denied the Lord, and that Jesus invites Peter to participate in his own reinstatement in responding to his questions “do you love me?”

This was most apparent in what he wrote on forgiveness:

     “One of the reasons curiosity is so important to our growth and formation is that it’s not enough to hear Jesus teaching ‘forgive,’ and then we do it.

We need the second question–the curious question–How?

When it comes to forgiveness, the how is not just an event. It’s not just an action, an attitude, a prayer, or a gift given in hopes of burying a hatchet.

Forgiveness is an address. It’s a place where you live.”

I’ve never heard it expressed like this but it so makes sense. It is like there are only two houses we can live in–a judgment world or a forgiveness world. We either live in a world of judging and being judged, or in forgiving and being forgiven.

My sense is that this freshness arises out of the author’s own childlike curiosity. Perhaps one of the simple goodnesses of this book is the permission he gives to ask questions. Some of us may have gotten the mistaken notion that this is not permitted of “good” or “mature” or “orthodox” Christians. Far from being a problem or an apologetic challenge, he treats questions as an opportunity to be encountered by the God who is not put off by our questions but uses the questions we bring into God’s presence as a means not simply to inform us but to change us–to transform us.

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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.