For many years, I compiled an annual list of books of matters soulful or spiritual for those who might want to explore new writers or re-visit old ones in the ongoing work of tending a spiritual life. Some of you have asked me to do that again, after a several year hiatus. I found the task challenging and in some ways forbidding, therefore liberating. I have come to understand, if that is even the right word, that one’s individual spiritual life, call, development and resonance is as unique as one’s DNA, and in some ways perhaps formed in part by the same. I cannot escape my Irishicity (new word!), the replete foundation in all things spiritual and religious that is my heritage as a born-Roma Catholic, nor can I alter, nor do I want to, the profoundly formative work of Jesuits on and with me, eight years as their student and nine years as their brother. The facticity of my sexuality in its interface with the world, too, is beyond dispute a most significant factor in my development, as is nearly thirty years of settled domestic life (and eighteen months of marriage…). I listen keenly to individuals every day, twenty women and men a week, and have for the past quarter century. They have shaped me deeply. Thirty years of sobriety has given me a wide angle lens to view life and matters external to me and interior to me. So I am the sum of those, and really countless other, parts. Education, family birth order, parent’s histories, born in America, a male, raised in the exact circumstances that I have been, given a superior education and having taken even more. All contribute to the ongoing development of this spiritual and soulful person. As do your exigencies shape and influence, create really, you.
I am continually influenced by Christians of every stripe and none, by Roman Catholics and Protestants, by cosmologists and naturalists, by Buddhists and the Hebrew prophets, by my daily companions, the Muslim Sufi poet Rumi and the luminous face of Jesus, present through every transmutation of my spiritual path, both in its vibrancy and its nadir states.
I have recently come through a Gobi of a two years. During this time, I continued to read in these vast fields, though sometimes with distaste, sometimes with a faint awareness of that which is beyond any state we inhabit. The following are reflections on what I encountered between the bindings of books that made their way to my lap.
Laurence Freeman’s Jesus: The Teacher Within is the best book of its kind I have read. But what is its kind? It is part testament, part Christology, part manual on obtaining maturity, part exegesis, part autobiography, in great part a book on meditation and its necessity and efficaciousness in the world today. It is beautifully written, engaging, intellectually rich, immensely rewarding. Freeman, an English Benedictine, is the director of the World Community of Christian Meditation, yoked to the East and the riches of Buddhism, in the tradition of the great Benedictine meditator John Main, with a forward by the Dalai Lama (no slouch to achieve that endorsement, one need not be reminded). I read this book at the enlightened cusp of my recent descent, though I had no idea that was ahead, so danger may lurk within its lofty pages. If you have a shard of faith in Jesus, whatever that might mean to you, this book will be a gift you might give yourself. Actually, no shards required. Richard Dawkins might just find this moving and erudite enough to read. And ponder. Maybe.
The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham is the book I have recommended to others the most in the past three years and the book that has had a singular impact on me, a perfectionist in the grand tradition of being so very proud of my perfectionism even as it took me down and reduced me to tears. Alas. Kurtz and Ketcham utilize the accreted wisdom of the Twelve Step programs (which many Jesuits have recognized over the years as having a foundational structure in Ignatian wisdom) to walk the reader through the ravages of a life lived perfectly, or rather, in the embrace of a perfectionism which is both a psychological trap and the great sin of hubris, both of which lead to despair. This is a peculiarly American and Christian encumbrance, one which literalizes and fetishizes the Word and disavows the deep humanity of the listener. From the pits of perfectionism, the authors invite the reader, if one is still reading at this point, to consider these lovely graces, outcomes of leaving perfection in its dust: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, being-at-home. Wow. Just the way these words fall on the eye is pleasing, and a relief. If you are an Enneagram One (or a Two, or a Six…), a Virgo (or whatever), have impeccably ordered closets and cabinets, hold quite a little bit of judgment inside, find it remarkably easy to spot the faults of others, can’t quite figure out why nature, human and otherwise, doesn’t quite align itself with your vision, find a little narcotic of some harmless kind a good antidote to the highly imperfect world in which you and I are required to live, read this book.
Many years ago, I discovered Terry Tempest Williams. Or perhaps more correctly, she discovered me. I have no idea who introduced me to her, but ever since, she has been my companion. And what an unusual companion for me: a Mormon! Keep reading. Williams lives in southern Utah, though she writes from many places. She is the latest in a long line of strong independent Utah Mormon women, no oxymoron there, and she writes evocatively about her grandmother, her mother, Utah’s spiritual landscape and topography, deserts, faith, the oceanic bottoms of the Great Salt Lake, Jesus, her husband, life, light, the intrinsic value of humor, need I go on? Her first book, Refuge, is a refreshment, and her latest book Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation of the juncture of art, ecology, human violence and redemption set in Ravenna, Italy (the home of the worlds’ most magnificent mosaics), a forsaken Rwandan town, and the vast prairie dog villages of the southwest Utah desert. She weaves together these seemingly disparate places into a beautifully poignant testament of hope and possibility. If you are an Annie Dillard fan, you will find her becoming. If you are not, read them both.
During the past eighteen months, I searched broadly for a way to understand the phenomena I was experiencing. I found Tim Farrington’s slight volume, A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul. In a scant one hundred pages, Farrington speaks of his own complex spiritual journey within the constructs of contemporary American psychiatry, which views, if I can cut to the chase, psychopharmacology as the solution to every form of human suffering. Much to our ultimate detriment, I believe, and Farrington’s eloquent book gives such testimony. While the appropriate response to organic depression is rightly medical, I observe that much of what we call depression in this culture is an appropriate feeling response to the conditions of life, the feelings about which being the great gift that lets us find our way through often dark thicket to re-create and re-imagine and re-enliven worn out patterns, boundary-less relationships, and inhuman expectations (see Imperfection above). Farrington says near the end of the book that the dark night is God’s solution to our solutions, not a bad summary of a spiritual journey which if medicated away bears no fruit.
While in the sands, I returned to Thomas Moore’s immensely popular book of nearly twenty years ago, Care of the Soul. I had found it engaging back in the early ‘90’s, and found the title again alluring. I did not expect it to affect me, but affect me it did, more than my first reading when I was a young whippersnapper in my early forties, knowing quite a lot as I did then. Moore is trained in classical Christian spiritual tradition and has become very familiar with the work of Carl Jung, whose contribution to spirituality is not yet fully realized. Moore is a most accessible writer, and invites one to deeply, and this is the word, live one’s life, all of it, with particular attention to the dark side, the shadow, the winters in which much of our most vital work is undertaken and brought to fruition. If you read Care of the Soul way back then, it is worth a re-reading. If you have come of age since, this book is a fine introduction to the complexities of the soulful spiritual, read: human, path, with its necessary vicissitudes, wanderings, stumbles, detours, failings, grandeurs, soarings, and mostly dailinesses, and how fidelity to the work and the disciplines inherent in it are both the work itself and its reward.
A companion to Moore is Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse. Carse is a professor at NYU, and brings to the conversation about mysticism the experiences of a very lay man, one steeped in both the classics and religious tradition and committed to the ordinary path we are all called to, one that requires observation, attention, physicality, silence, intuition, self-awareness and a great slowing down. Anecdotal, humorous, self-effacing, filled with the wisdom of sages (the Sufis, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, Socrates, the Buddha, the Hindu Vedas, Pascal, et al.), Carse writes an unpretentious book about what it means to be human, in the presence of the divine. Towards the end of the book, Carse says that the revelation I sought for was of God; the revelation I got was of a self I did not want to be…but seeing how far we are from God, the mystics thought, is the way God begins to seek us. The book is filled with such nuggets as these.
Dave Eggers, the celebrated San Francisco author who manages a school in the City’s Mission district teaching immigrant kids how to write creatively, has written another gem himself. But this one is no novel, though it read like one, or rather, an extended and engrossing journalistic account of reality, tragedy, hope, humor, humanity. Zeitoun is maybe the most truly soulfully spiritual book I read this year. It is an account of the travails of the Syrian-American Muslim Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his formerly Southern Baptist Louisiana wife, Kathy, in pre-, during- and post-Katrina New Orleans. If this man were a character in fiction, he would be read as is Huckleberry Finn today, for ages to come. Hopefully the fact he is a real human will not deter future readers. Part intensely recorded history of the advance and fall of the storm on the city of New Orleans, part account of the fantastically peaceful days immediately after the storm, part account of the beyond inept and cruel and unconstitutional story of the government’s response to this one of her citizens, part family log, and mostly a portrait of a magnificent and highly admirable human being, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and how he faced circumstances that would have broken many of us. His humanity, his humor, his faith in his God, his love for his wife and daughters and family in Spain and in Syria, his devotion to the city of New Orleans, his care for abandoned pets and abandoned people while forging for food for himself and his companions, his ultimate trust in God and in humanity, all shine through on every page. If you begin this book, plan on not going to work tomorrow, so committed to Zeitoun and his story you will become.
Many years ago I read and was charmed by Chet Raymo’s Honey from Stone. Raymo teaches the sciences at Stonehill College and writes beautifully about the natural world. When young, Raymo was a ferverino, a term we used decades ago for one obviously committed to the spiritual life, if excessively. He outgrew the excesses and eventually, the dogmas and many of the disciplines, too. His most recent book When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy is a brief, extended meditation on reverencing the natural world, the cosmos, creation, as a source of wisdom, experience, and ultimately spirit. He observes that much of God language has kept human beings from having a profound experience of nature, and thinks that if we would recover some of our innate regard for our place in the natural world, that we might see and experience the world as holy, and in doing so, our perspective would shift from an other-worldy focus to knowing and committing to a focus on this world, the only one we can currently inhabit. Such immense challenges as climate change and global warming would be more succinctly addressed by our absolute participation in the world as it is, not as it might be dogmatically constructed.
In my work in clinical psychology, I remain a pupil of Carl Jung. Though I am not a graduate of a Jung Institute, of which there are several in the United States, I am always reading some of his adherents to deepen my understanding of his insights. A book I reviewed many years ago The Scapegoat Complex by Sylvia Brinton Perrera has been most instrumental in my professional and person life, and I recently reread it for the fifth time, as best I could ascertain by the various marginal notes I have taken over the years. This year a friend sent to me Living in the Borderlands: the Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma by Santa Fe Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein. Bernstein combines an understanding of Native American mythology and ritual, an appreciation of the separation we in the West have experienced from nature, the hidden paradoxes of human intuition, and the openness of some humans to ways of knowing that are both contra-indicated in our rational world and are often regarded as akin to some kind of pathology. Living in this borderland is a fraught and ultimately graced experience, and is not dissimilar to the path of Christian mysticism that some other books in this list are engaged with. The complexity of modern life calls from us new ways of seeing, knowing and acting to recover what is most deeply human and natural, as opposed to mechanical, the reign of which seems daily to be ascendant. This is a difficult and spotty book but speaks to an experience some readers of this blog will both identify with and appreciate.
Trickster Makes This World is the most engaging book I have read in many years. Its author, Lewis Hyde, is a genius, and had such status confirmed when he won the MacArthur Award. He taught creative writing at Harvard, perhaps by passing out his own wonderful texts, and writes with vast knowledge of the mythological traditions and their intricacies of African, Asian, Australian, and North American native tribes and peoples, contemporary art (Duchamp, Ginsburg Cage), with expositions on Frederick Douglass, Greek mythology, the Christ, and with enough Shakespeare, Jung, Freud, and contemporary writers of fiction to delight and amaze and provoke you. He is wise, witty, counterintuitive, disruptive, smart, connecting, demanding,. This is a delicious book. It took me many months of a few paragraphs at a time to digest, and well worth the effort. It utterly humanizes us, and respects that which is steeped in Mystery with uncanny regard, and often surprising accuracy. Like Perrera, I will re-read this, hopefully many times. It cannot be gotten the first time, though the first time is joyous.
I conclude with the most recent book by a man who was among the first writers to whom I was drawn as I began my adult life forty years ago. It was 1970, and we were both so young. Then a Catholic priest at Boston University, and an anti-war activist, James Carroll wrote elegantly about a life of faith, and offered prayers in an idiom I hungered for. Elegantly he still writes. Now primarily known as a novelist (Mortal Friends, Prince of Peace, et al), he recently penned Constantine’s Sword, an indictment of historical Christianity’s treatment of and active participation in the persecution of the Jews, up to and including the Holocaust. It is a troubling and very beneficial text. He most recent book is Practicing Catholic, which I was shy to pick up but my fealty to Carroll invited me to the same. I was amply rewarded. While Carroll writes in a vein not dissimilar to Chet Raymo, he is a man who has stayed within the walls of the institution, though on his terms. Having gone beyond the ancient and inadequate dogmatic and political constructions of a conciliar church, and here we are talking about Nicaea and Chalcedon in the fourth and fifth centuries, not Vatican II, in the late and not missed twentieth, Carroll dissects the political, sexual, inter-religious, hierarchical, theological accretions of Catholicism, and yet makes a case for maintaining ties to a group of pilgrims on this journey, and for him how the act of reformation, as radical as he deems it to be, one worthy of an educated and fully invested in the twenty-first century human being, knowing that paths to the divine are sacred even when they have been mutilated by injustice, abuse, arrogance, denial, intellectual rigidity, and obtuseness. For readers who are practicing Catholics, for those reading these who grew up in the Roman Church (I recently read that there are upwards of ten million former Catholics in the United States…), for those interested in how massive religious institutions operate and perhaps change, Carroll is a good and faithful guide. And a very decent human being.
Happy reading and a happy New Year to you.