One of the great unexpected perks of the type of ministry, both popular and academic, that I am engaged in is that frequently publishers and authors will share with you a variety of new books. Many times I experience the personal frustration of not being able to at least preliminarily explore some of the books that come through my mailbox or inbox before they land on an ever-growing real or virtue stack of “to be read” books. Working on several concurrent book and other writing projects, traveling as often as I do, serving the community in pastoral ministry, and completing a doctoral degree full time all unfortunately compete with my ability to mention some excellent and interesting new books with the speed and regularity I would ordinarily like. This is my feeble excuse for not talking about these three books as soon as would have liked (and the many others I hope to also get to at some point).
And so, rather than three individual reviews and comments, I thought I might offer something of a joint spiritual review of three books that have come across my desk in recent months, each from different authors with vastly different backgrounds, grounding their reflections in three different spiritual traditions.
Rooted in Love
First on the list is Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality Into Daily Life (New Voices, 2013). This book, written by the South African author Margaret Blackie, a scientist and spiritual director, offers an interesting look at Ignatian Spirituality. Grounded in accessible and personal experiences, Blackie’s approach to Ignatian Spirituality finds its origins in what Karl Rahner might describe as “everyday mysticism.” It might find itself stylistically in the same vein as Tim Muldoon’s The Ignatian Workout (2004) or Jim Martin, SJ,’s A Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything (2012), as a text that seeks to make the Ignatian adage “Finding God in All Things” tangible for the modern reader. By and large, I believe that Blackie does this and does so in a unique way.
While one certainly learns about Ignatian Spirituality along the way, this book is less didactic than it is experiential. With the distinctive and expert style of a spiritual director, Blackie’s prose reads more like a conversation than it does a lecture, which is something someone on retreat or seeking to find a quiet retreat-like experience at home can appreciate. One feels like they get to know Blackie personally throughout the book, sharing with her the experiences of her own spiritual and life journey while also considering your own path. Each chapter includes reflection questions for further consideration, prayer, and possible discussion in a group setting.
For those who are already familiar with and are fans of Ignatian Spirituality, this is a good book to take another look at the tradition you embrace. If you are not as familiar, I think this is a helpful and comfortable way to get to know it better.
The Wandering Friar
Next on the spiritual shelf is a book written by a fellow Franciscan friar, John Anglin, OFM, titled The Wandering Friar: A Traveling Franciscan Preacher Looks at the Church Through the Stories of Its Members (Tate, 2013). This is a unique book. Rather than a straightforward narrative or expository text, Anglin’s book is a compilation of experiences, stories, and real-life parables collected from his many years on the road as a retreat leader and preacher. The book is divided into two parts. The first, “The Hand of God,” is the shorter and features his personal vocation story and the setup for how he became the wandering friar (which is also the title of his blog). Here we get the clearest introduction to and description of his whole project, which is mostly contained in the remaining portion of the book:
I hope to hold that mirror, as it were, before many members of the People of God that I have encountered over the years and before you, the reader, in the hope that you will see more clearly the Body of Christ that you receive in the Eucharist and that we truly are as the Church (51).
As you might tell from this brief excerpt, Anglin grounds his reflections as a Franciscan friar and traveling preacher in the rich theology of the church from Vatican II. Throughout the book, you get the sense that he understands — especially having lived through it — the significance of the Council and the importance understanding ourselves and the People of God in this light has for the ongoing reflection on what it means to be the Body of Christ. Additionally, as you might also note, this short except is reflective of another aspect of this book that might be welcomed or not by particular readers. Anglin’s style has an aural quality to it, which makes sense given that these are reflections of a preacher. He writes in a way that bears a resemblance to how we might hear his reflections. This is a stylistic observation, one that could potentially be frustrating for those looking to pick it up like another book, but perhaps interesting to those who can conjure the voice of an experience Franciscan sharing his story and the stories of those he has met aloud.
The second part of the book is the bulk of the text, a collection of stories and parables taken from the life of a itinerant preacher, taken from the experiences of many different people over the years. These are presented in such a way as to provide a different look at what we call “the church,” something that Anglin — rooted in good theology and Vatican II — continually reminds us is the Body of Christ and not just its leaders.
The last book on the spiritual shelf today is a real gem. Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, A Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith (AMP/Sorin, 2013) is a personal spiritual reflection written by the television journalist Judith Valente. The title, which caught my attention right away, comes from the color of the chapel glass found in the St. Scholastica Benedictine Monastery, where Valente’s faith journey finds its support and new life. This is a spiritual memoir of sorts that offers a glimpse and appropriation of a monastic way of living and praying from the vantage point of a modern-day professional. We are presented both with Valente’s journey, but also invited along the way to consider how we might embrace — regardless of social location, profession, and state of life — the Benedictine spiritual rhythm of ora et labora (prayer and work).
Not that one should judge a book by its cover, I feel like I have to say that this book — in its cover, in its French style, and in its rugged page cuts — is an attractive book and one that definitely drew me to it.
Valente’s book is something of an in-between text compared to Blackie’s and Anglin’s. Whereas Blackie gives a solid and direct presentation of Ignatian Spirituality from a personal and dialogical perspective and Anglin provides a collection of disparate and personal narratives, Valente presents the Benedictine tradition as experienced in her journey peppered with seemingly disparate, but nonetheless interesting, stories that bring the reader along with her on her assignments for PBS and other such adventures. It is something of an exitus and reditus flow of the ora et labora spirituality — one leaves the monastery to labor in the diverse fields of the world and returns to the monastery (real or analogous) to pray and recharge.
Valente is an excellent writer and the book takes little effort to settle in. I found myself moving smoothly along with her narration, interested in the first-person “behind-the-scenes” like story of her faith journey.