e-mail us


Five books that come as gifts


Anyone who tracks book publishing knows that few topics generate a greater surfeit of titles than spirituality. There is a certain raw capitalist truth at work here, a version of the law of supply and demand that tells us something about ourselves: If most of us felt capable of achieving spiritual insight on our own, we wouldn’t shell out $20 to writers such as Kathleen Norris to deliver it to us.

For people who make a cult out of self-reliance in so many other ways, we seem remarkably needy when it comes to matters of the spirit. We seem to have no idea how to think about the most basic questions -- the why, as opposed to the how, when and where -- of our lives.

For that reason, a book that stirs our deepest self is a true gift. The problem, of course, is sorting through all the chaff to find the wheat in the bumper crop of spiritual titles. To that end, I’ve set aside five books that have crossed the desk in recent months. But one person’s insight is, of course, someone else’s banality, so be forewarned -- this list comes with no karma-back guarantee.

The Best Spiritual Writing: 1999, edited by Philip Zaleski (HarperSan Francisco, $16)

This is an annual collection, and it’s first-rate again this year. Annie Dillard’s piece “Acts of God” manages to work references to Teilhard, Hassidic wisdom and the Krishna into observations from an obstetrics ward. In Mary Gordon’s “Still Life,” lifted from Harper’s magazine, the author weaves together the story of her mother’s last days with those of painter Pierre Bonnard. Seamus Heaney’s poem “A New Work in the English Tongue” from the New Yorker contains a memorable reference to grief as something that “can still knock language sideways.” And Jonathan Rosen’s essay on the Talmud and the Internet is terrific, including the tantalizing observation that both systems were born out of loss.

Once again, however, the collection suffers from a serious oversight: the omission of anything by Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens, whose Starting Point essays appear frequently in NCR and whose Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk was published this year by ACTA Publications. I made the point last year as well, that Behrens is among the very best spiritual writers going, and any collection of the year’s best material that overlooks him is incomplete.

Philip Zaleski, are you listening?

The Heart of Silence: Contemplative Prayer by Those Who Practice It, by Paul Harris (Novalis, $19.95)

Paul Harris has done a service to anyone who has ever been simultaneously intrigued by contemplative prayer and yet put off by the seeming emptiness of it when actually tried. Silence and stillness sound wonderful in the abstract, but it’s difficult to escape a sense of pointless “just sitting there” when the game is afoot. This book steps one systematically through various strategies and approaches to contemplative prayer, from beginner to advanced levels, with special selections for married people, priests and the elderly. The last chapter, “the fruits of meditation,” actually makes a good place to begin -- reading it helps to sell the reader on the potential pay-offs down the line.

Anthony de Mello, with writings selected by Fr. William Dych, S.J. (Orbis, $14)

Despite whatever reservations the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may have about Fr. Anthony de Mello’s efforts to blend Western spirituality with insights from Eastern traditions, he remains for many seekers an invaluable bridge between the two cultures (in 1998, the congregation censured de Mello’s work for “relativizing” the faith and leading to “religious indifferentism”). For some, the late Indian Jesuit is actually more like a window than a bridge -- he opened Christianity to them, making it seem beautiful and compelling in a way that more conventional presentations never had. This collection offers several of his best-known works and would be an ideal introduction to de Mello for someone encountering him for the first time. William Dych’s introduction may be a bit too academic in tone for some readers, but students of de Mello will appreciate his insights.

The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions, by Wayne Teasdale (New World Library, $23.95)

Physicists such as Stephen J. Hawking have long been searching for what they call a “unified field theory,” an account of the universe that would lead to a single force or process underlying everything. On a spiritual level, Teasdale is sort of after the same thing here, looking for places where the spiritual teachings and practices of the world’s great religious traditions intersect. It is, of course, a well-traveled path, and experts on interreligious issues may not find much novel here -- after all, mystical experiences such as dreams and visions have long been seen as “supra-confessional.” But for others just beginning to wonder what we all have in common, where to look for the one God underneath all the rich religious diversity of the human family, this may be just the right guide.

Wilderness Spirituality: Finding Your Way in an Unsettled World, by Rodney Romney (Element, $24.95)

There is nothing like a desert or a forest to evoke a sense of the sacred, and Rodney Romney here uses the wilderness image to good effect. Yet this book is not about a spirituality of flight or retreat. Instead, Romney wants us to engage the late 20th-century equivalent of hostile desert tribes such as rising crime, environmental pollution and the disintegration of our institutions. Our culture needs to face these challenges, Romney argues, if we are to pick our way through the wilderness and find a path to our own Promised Land. It is a book that addresses both the personal and social dimensions of spiritual growth and actually integrates the two in ways that most self-help or spirituality titles do not.

John Allen is NCR opinion editor. He can be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999