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Summer Books

Culling the best of spiritual reading


We’ve all seen the ads: 10 books for a buck, then one a month forever at a low price until you cancel. Pick any genre -- mysteries, science fiction, gardening, self-help for your psyche, fitness for your muscles, crafts, history or politics -- there’s a book-of-the-month club for it.

In our fast-paced, everything-coming-at-you-at-once society, it’s a useful service.

On a regular basis, someone culls through the huge pile and selects the best. Even books on wisdom, spirituality and prayer have such a monthly broker -- Spiritual Books Associates (SBA).

Spiritual nourishment through reading has been the aim and purpose of Spiritual Books since its founding 75 years ago. “Today, along with bringing the best books on spirituality and prayer to individuals,” Spiritual Books Associates director Daniel Driscoll told NCR, “we support spiritual reading by providing a broad range of reviews, discussion questions, author profiles and book summaries in order to establish and grow small groups of readers throughout the nation and the world.” Since the early days of Christianity, when seekers approached Desert Mothers and Fathers for “a good word,” people have hungered for such resources to meet their spiritual needs, according to Driscoll.

“It’s really not a book club,” Driscoll pointed out. “Members pay upfront for a subscription, then eight times a year receive a newly published, high-quality hardcover book, along with a newsletter that highlights 15 other current titles. We do the hard work of culling through the mountain of spiritual books that are published every year, sorting out and finding the best and most helpful. We are particularly interested in books that help Catholic parents better cope with the demands of both working and raising a family.”

In the middle of the Depression in 1934, Spiritual Books was founded by Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Talbot of America magazine, the same year Dorothy Day founded the first Catholic Worker House in New York City. Talbot called it “the book club of the soul.” It was the first Catholic book club in the United States, offering books exclusively on spirituality and prayer.

In 1963 Spiritual Books moved from New York City to the campus of the University of Notre Dame where it became part of the publishing ministry of the Indiana Province of the Holy Cross.

With over 8,000 Spiritual Books associates worldwide, “we continue to bring the best in spiritual reading not only to rectories and convents,” Driscoll said, “but to homes and offices in cities, suburbs and rural areas throughout the United States and Canada. Over 30 percent of members now are laywomen and men. Many of our members are missionaries located in countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Chile -- all places where new books by the leading spiritual writers are hard to come by.”

Spiritual Books also publishes Readers’ Group Guides, which provide overviews of the featured books, interviews with or profiles of their authors, and questions to stimulate discussion, Readers’ Group Guides “bring depth and dimension to these groups,” according to Driscoll. “Highlights from groups around the country link readers to one another.”

The spiritual book of the month for February 1953 was Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. In March 1975, it was Poustinia by Catherine de Hueck Doherty. September 1984 brought Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green. Last month’s spiritual book of the month was What Are We to Do? Living the Sermon on the Mount by Thomas Yount.

“We believe we’ve made a major contribution over the years to an informed Catholic laity -- and a prayerful one,” said Driscoll. “We’re trying to find new ways to reach more readers. Currently we’re looking at retreat houses as a place to market our service.”

“The church has changed a lot over 75 years,” Driscoll said. “Yet [Spiritual Books] has endured by staying with its mission: fostering the spiritual growth of our members by offering them the finest in spiritual reading.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002