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Spirituality: Books

Five intriguing spiritual titles
NCR Staff

Tastes in spiritual writing are notoriously idiosyncratic. One person’s wisdom is another’s banality. I may sense the stirrings of the divine, for example, in the takeout menu from my favorite barbecue joint, while others may glimpse the transcendent in a Danielle Steele novel. The Spirit has the annoying habit of picking the oddest places to show up.

Thus, while books with explicitly spiritual themes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, they may also hold some hidden treasures for those willing to explore. The five books featured in these capsule reviews hint at the staggering variety of literature out there; they seemed among the most intriguing to cross the desk in recent months.

The Best Spiritual Writing 1998
edited by Philip Zaleski (Harper San Francisco)

Any “best of” anthology is an ambitious undertaking. A lot like the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American movies, this list invites debate; readers of NCR may be disappointed, for example, that no room was found among the 38 contributions for one of Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens’ essays that frequently grace NCR’s page 2 Starting Point. Still, the selections from Natalie Goldberg and Rick Moody are worth the price of the book almost by themselves, along with good stuff from old favorites such as Thomas Moore and Huston Smith. It is the kind of collection that makes a good addition to a reading table, to be picked up in quiet moments and harvested for the insights it contains. While it may not in all cases represent the “best,” it’s universally quite good.

Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations
by Sr. Wendy Beckett (DK Publishing)

Best known as the chatty nun from her BBC series of art documentaries, Sr. Wendy here serves up a collection of spiritual ruminations prompted by various works of art, handsomely reproduced in full color. Organized around the themes of “silence,” “peace,” “love,” and “joy,” the writing is impressive, even moving in spots; but there’s no doubt the real winner here is the art, beautiful and stunning and spiritually eloquent all by itself. This is a book to be moved through slowly, savoring the images that rise up from every page. All genres and periods of art are represented. While Sr. Wendy’s commentary does a fine job of picking out themes from each, images such as the little girl peeking around a corner from Crivelli’s “The Annunciation,” or the rapturous expression on the saint’s face in Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” are far too multilayered and resonant to be fully captured in anybody’s summary. They demand personal contemplation -- and richly reward it as well.

Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures,
by Trappist Fr. M. Basil Pennington
(Crossroad Publishing)

A prolific author, and perhaps an even more prolific giver of retreats, Pennington is best known as an exponent of what he has termed “centering prayer.” Here Pennington takes up a spiritual exercise with a rich history, made famous by St. Augustine himself, whose conversion was triggered by reflecting on a scripture passage selected at random. Pennington gets into his subject quickly, without artifice, and writes in an appealingly unpretentious fashion. His text is free of the puffery and the in-group jargon that many spiritual masters develop over the years. This book is a how-to manual; it is not intended as the object of meditation itself. Instead, it offers practical suggestions for individual and group use of scripture in prayer. It is in that sense like a road map produced by an experienced guide -- one that will reliably lead deeper in the divine mystery for those who choose to follow it.

Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths
by Shirley Du Boulay (Doubleday)

“Even at age 86 and on the edge of death,” wrote Tim McCarthy in NCR in 1993, “Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths was still running so far ahead of the pack that his life’s momentum will quicken him for many springs to come.” Few obituaries have proved more prophetic, as interest in Griffiths’ life and thought continues to grow. Born into a conventional middle-class English home, Griffiths grew up to become a Benedictine monk, a friend of C.S. Lewis, then a leading advocate of East/West religious dialogue and eventually the leader of an Indian ashram. He anticipated spiritual currents well before they hit the mainstream, and, according to the testimony of those who knew him, radiated a personal integrity that lent credibility to his public spiritual evolution. He also suffered at the hands of church authorities who sometimes saw Griffiths as too willing to let go of dogmatic and disciplinary “accidentals” in the quest for inter-religious unity. Today many spiritual writers look to Griffiths as an undeclared patron saint of the quest to find the points of transcendence that unite all faiths. In this biography, Du Boulay presents her subject warts and all, including the self-doubt and sense of failure that plagued Griffiths right up to the end. His was a life most brilliantly lived, and Du Boulay does a commendable job of capturing it.

Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture from the Heartland
edited by J. Kent Calder and Susan Neville (The Polis Center and Indiana University Press)

Don’t let the title fool you -- this book isn’t just about generic white Midwestern Protestants, though they, too, get their day in court. But the book has a much wider lens, capturing Muslims and Jews and Orthodox believers and an African-American Baptist congregation and dozens of others too, all from the state of Indiana. In that sense it’s a powerful statement about the religious diversity of America, even in a place regarded as less diverse than many other spots in the country. The essays are for the most part quite good, each commenting on a particular faith tradition, usually drawing on personal experience. The photos by Kim Charles Ferrill are moving too, especially in capturing the quiet sanctity of ordinary moments, such as two people hugging after a church service or a young Muslim intently at prayer. For anyone seeking to understand the enduring power of religious faith in contemporary America, this is an indispensable volume.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998