e-mail us

Winter Books: Bookshelf

Interior Paths


Spirituality is enduringly popular, and authentic Christian spirituality will promote renewed appreciation of gospel invitations and mandates. As a colleague of mine pointed out in a recent missive, we can read the gospel all we want. But if we hear it as “Jesus and me” and not as “Jesus and us,” we have missed the entire gospel message. Indeed, we have never heard it.

How to get people into a communal mindset so they can filter this correctly when most everything in our culture is antagonistic to communalism seems the task of the modern writer in spirituality.

That said, here follows consideration of some books on spirituality that came in this month’s box. And one change in “Bookshelf”: For over a decade, I have looked at about 20 books in each column, some with just a sentence or two, and others at greater length. Now I’ll consider fewer books in one general area.

Visions: The Soul’s Path to the Sacred, by Eddie Ensley (Loyola Press, 285 pages, $17.95 hardbound), begins “Beneath the clutter of our everyday busyness is a yearning.” The reader might hope she or he has come across a latter day seeker in the manner of Augustine, whose Confessions begin with the famous reference to his restless heart that will find rest only in God.

Ensley’s visions include “everything from a mellow warmth we feel when singing a hymn or looking out over God’s ocean to the ecstatic meetings that seers at Lourdes or Fátima are said to have experienced.” All these encounters with the holy, either subdued or vivid, are calls to transformation, he says.

Ensley asserts -- perhaps incorrectly -- that “we have all been trained to think that a chasm separates the natural and supernatural worlds.” Writing in his new book, The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley suggests instead that ordinary Catholics tend to picture God, creation, the world, society, and themselves the way great artists do -- as drenched with grace, with God’s passionately forgiving love.

Ensley looks to dialogue with other traditions, confessing that his own 30-year quest has resulted in making him more solidly Christian. He also asserts that both Christianity and Judaism contain wisdom that can enrich people everywhere, not just Christians and Jews.

While there may be much to admire in his attention to the immanence of God, I am not convinced that such eclecticism will serve to promote holiness and steadfastness in the long run. Why would it not be better to plumb the depths of one’s own tradition, or one other way that could become one’s own, rather than setting out as seeker with a boundless horizon and no particular notion of being at home?

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein’s search for God is not mundane: It has included dogsledding above the Arctic circle, going down the Silk Road into China without a visa, being chased by a grizzly bear, cruising the South Bronx with drug agents, and spending a night in the Tombs, New York City’s much feared jail. In God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places (Bell Tower, Crown Publishing Group, 204 pages, $22 hardbound), he writes of his powerful and difficult experiences.

He charges that much of what passes for spirituality is comforting and clean, with 12 steps for this and seven rules for that and guardian angels to help along the way. He finds that such messages, while helpful to some, do not deal adequately with the reality of struggle, pain and messy reality. He seeks alternative religious expression, wisely pointing out that authentic works on spirituality have never feared the journey to the frontiers of human experience: “The dark forest of the inner spirit may be murky in places, but buried in its soil are the seeds of our salvation.”

He acknowledges that the alternative paths to God to which he points, at times uncomfortable and unexpected, are not the only conduits to spirituality, or even the best ones. But he knows that encounters with the divine do not always happen in synagogues and churches, but can occur in unsettling places, in agitation and in suffering. He confesses that he “will always hear the call of the wild.” Those who hear it also may find an apt guide and a newly discovered frontier here.

In Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (Bell Tower, Crown Publishing Group, 263 pages, $22 hardbound), editor Lorraine Kisly has gathered what she terms cycles of passages that center in the teachings of Christ. They span centuries, and include the voices of the ancient fathers of the church, modern Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant artists, writers, saints and teachers.

I love books like this that search the tradition, find gems that have been buried in tomes often untouched by modern seekers, gathering prompts to prayer that can be read day by day or chapter by chapter. Kisly wisely cautions that what she has chosen represents but a fraction of what might have been included, and no attempt has been made to be either comprehensive or representative. Good! Maybe these collected insights will prompt readers to go again to the gospels and epistles, reading with newly opened eyes.

A publisher who would no doubt prefer to remain unnamed told me in a recent note, “I’m convinced that every book should be titled How To Be Happy.” This book could have had that title. It begins with an invitation from the Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart, “Let us pray to our dear Lord God that he help us to mount a life undivided to a life unified. Amen.” And continues both with snippets and lengthier pericopes from Tertullian to Simone Weil to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This is surely the path to happiness: seeking God’s good face as it is revealed day by day, soul by soul.

I was put off when I read Jim Marion’s introduction to his Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 324 pages, $21.95). He refers to himself as a mystic, by which he means one who has been blessed with as certain amount of psychic ability to see, feel and sometimes hear “beyond the spacetime world we ordinarily perceive with physical senses.”

I am by no means an expert in mysticism, but it seems to me that mystics have usually been so involved in mystical activity and perhaps recording or describing or preserving that experience, that they would not be so bold or so vain as to call themselves mystics. Marion’s publisher, though, calls him “a rare combination of Christian mystic and public policy lawyer.” It is, I think, a rare combination indeed.

Marion also bills his work as “the first book to clearly describe the entire Christian spiritual path.” He writes of entering an unnamed monastery in the 1960s where he was “swept up into a highly altered and exalted stage of consciousness for several days” at age 15. His existence there, he reports, was idyllic, until “God lowered the boom” and he was plunged into what John of the Cross calls the “Dark Night of the Senses.”

His trials include being deprived of a holiday other students had, his best friend leaving the monastery, interpersonal conflicts and exclusion from choir “though I had a very good voice.” These memories, so vivid and painful at so late a date, might suggest the need for a healing of memories and making peace with the troubles of adolescence.

Marion took two years to heal, during which time he worked for a Wall Street investment bank, which somehow seems an odder place for a mystic than the Whitehorse Tavern in Greenwich Village where the mystical Thomas Merton and insightful Dylan Thomas both tipped the odd pint.

In his chapter on “What Jesus Taught About the Kingdom of Heaven” Marion points out that Christians of many denominational persuasions think instead that the kingdom is a place, not here, that one enters after a virtuous life. Such a vision disparages the world and promotes individualism rather than a concern for the Body of Christ. He could have worked more on the communal model. If, indeed, we are “putting on the same mind that Jesus had,” we will not only come into a “no-separation vision of the Kingdom of Heaven,” but get busy transforming the world as it is into the world as it ought to be.

Marion suggests that “we are already perfect in God’s eyes.” Indeed we are the sons and daughters of the most high God, and that status is not for nothing. But that dignity is not to be confused with perfection. Where is the sense of sin and conversion in an approach that finds us already at perfection? This Christian paradox is masterfully treated in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” O’Connor (who may have well been a mystic) considers the problem of Mrs. Turpin, a decidedly imperfect soul, who ponders her troubling situation of being redeemed but standing yet in need of redemption.

Marion’s work has interesting and valuable features, but it would be hard, I think, to consider it a clear description of the entire Christian path.

Fr. William C. Graham is the editor of Sacred Adventure: Beginning Theological Study. His e-mail address is NCRBkshelf@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000