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Catch the new wave of spiritual writing.

For years spiritual-book publishers were just keeping their heads above water. These days they're riding high with a resurgence in religious publishing. Culture columnist Patrick McCormick introduces some of the more useful guides to Christian spirituality now available to readers.

In the beginning there was M. Scott Peck. And then, after a while, he was followed by Thomas More, who in turn begot Deepak Chopra, whose descendants wrote books on the spiritualities of recovery, healing, and the sacredness of ordinary things. Then came texts on the spirituality of work, leadership, and voluntary simplicity.

Suddenly all the shelves that used to deal with 12-step programs, self-help gurus, and diets were having to make space for a spirituality section that was growing like a mustard tree.

Folks who had gotten used to traveling great distances to out-of-the-way religious bookstores or shopping off the racks in the back of their parish church found that they could find some pretty decent spiritual writing at the neighborhood B. Dalton, Borders, or Barnes & Noble bookstores.

At a locally owned bookstore here in Spokane, Washington I've seen Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ (St. Paul Publications, 1993), as well as works by Saint Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas Merton, mixed in with the writings of a number of contemporary authors.

Which only goes to show that it did not all begin with Peck's The Road Less Traveled (S&S Trade, 1985), and that this most recent bumper crop of spiritual writings is, for Christians, the latest in a long line of harvests composing the rich and varied tapestry of Christian spirituality. Like all other harvests, of course, there is some chaff among the wheat, some fluff and light reading mixed in with more substantial and helpful books. Still there are a number of interesting and useful texts available for readers interested in finding out more about Christian spirituality or tapping into its resources.

Readers looking for a well-written and highly accessible introduction to Christian spirituality would do well to pick up a copy of Michael Downey's Understanding Christian Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1997). In seven brief chapters, Downey, the editor of The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 1993), explores the contemporary forces behind our growing interest in spirituality, inquires into the nature and identity of Christian spirituality, unpacks a rich tradition of Christian spiritual writings, and offers some helpful critical tools for evaluating differing approaches to spirituality and guiding our own spiritual development. His book, written for upper-division undergrads or adult-education discussion groups, also comes with suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter.

Another really fine general introduction to this topic is Lawrence Cunningham and Keith Egan's Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (Paulist Press, 1996). In ten extremely well-crafted chapters, Cunningham and Egan introduce the reader to a variety of practices and paths by which Christians down through the centuries have approached the holy. Exploring themes such as scripture, journeying, meditation, and contemplations -- well as asceticism, mysticism, solitude, and community -- the authors of this informative and engaging text provide their audience with a rich grasp of the history of Christian spirituality while simultaneously offering a real taste of some of the tradition's most life-giving practices.

Along with excellent suggestions for further reading, each chapter in this book also comes with exercises to help us experience the power of these various paths. This is the sort of book that would work quite well for either private reading or as part of a small discussion group.

But my personal favorite among the various general introductions to Christian spirituality would have to be Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Jossey-Bass, 1997), edited by Dorothy Bass. Like Cunningham and Egan's book, this anthology explores the rich heritage of Christian spirituality by focusing on the sorts of practices that have nurtured and sustained believers through the ages.

"Practices," as Bass notes, "are those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life." In a series of a dozen essays, the contributors to this book attempt to respond to our hunger for a rich spiritual life by exploring and retrieving the meaning of basic practices like keeping Sabbath, hospitality, discernment, and forgiveness.

Finally, James J. Bacik's Spirituality in Transition (Sheed & Ward, 1996) attempts to bring the riches of Christian spirituality into conversation with "the signs of the times." We need, according to Bacik, a spirituality that is neither escapist nor private, but one which can engage and challenge the world we live in, one capable of speaking to the various technological, political, economic, and ecological structures that constitute reality for us at the beginning of the third millennium. Bacik's text seeks to suggest an approach to Christian spirituality that can help us to both recognize the grace of God and address the power of sin in the world around us.

People often turn to spiritual writing and guides when attempting to negotiate the various passages and crises of their lives. It's at the turning points of adolescence, parenthood, middle age, retirement, or the onset of a long illness that we find ourselves scurrying about for fresh maps and directions.

In Rosemarie Carfagna's Divine Designs: Exercises for Spiritual Growth (Sheed & Ward, 1996), the author offers her readers a guided tour of nine of the most common passages most of us need to negotiate in our spiritual pilgrimages. Exploring a number of the different stages and crises that characterize our development into whole and (hopefully) holy persons, Carfagna not only provides us with practical descriptions of the challenges and difficulties of these turning points, she also introduces us to a variety of helpful resources from the wellspring of our Christian faith.

Like Cunningham and Egan, she closes each chapter with exercises that help her readers develop the skills they will need for the various legs of the journey.

Margaret Guenther's Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life (Cowley Publications, 1995) guides readers through later life. The author -- an Episcopal. priest, spiritual director, and grandmother -- offers Saint Anne as a patron saint for those negotiating the stiller but deeper waters of our middle and later years.

Guenther moves beyond the need for accomplishment and certitude and says people must, in order to grow into a mature faith, come to grips with the ambiguity, limits, and losses in life's second half. For this part of the journey, Guenther recommends that her readers explore the resources of intercessory prayer and community as well as the importance of a certain lightheartedness and gracefulness. These will, she suggests, serve us well on the pilgrimage ahead.

Patrick Howell's As Sure as the Dawn: A Spirit Guide Through Times of Darkness (Sheed & Ward, 1996) offers its readers a string of lanterns through life's darker spots. As someone who wrote about his own breakdown and recovery in Reducing the Storm to a Whisper: The Story of a Breakdown (Thomas More Press, 1985), Howell is a spiritual director who believes that our greatest growth spurts often result from having to come to grips with life's uglier car wrecks.

In a dozen tightly written chapters he explores hunger for spirituality, the crises that drive us to face our deepest questions, and the resources Christian spirituality offers to those in search of a God who will help us wrestle with our darkest demons.

Through the ages Christians in search of the holy have turned to the saints as models, guides, and intercessors, and so it's not surprising to discover that a good deal of the current writing in spirituality focuses on the gifts and lessons we receive from the holy women and men who have gone before us.

For readers without the opportunity to spend a quiet afternoon in the stillness of a great cathedral, I would heartily recommend Joan Chittister's A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God (Orbis Books, 1996), with lavishly illustrated icons by Robert Lentz (whose icons of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Gandhi are quite well-known by now). In 29 essays Chittister introduces us to a truly "catholic" range of saints, including several recent and contemporary social-justice prophets and martyrs. But that is, as they say, only half of the story. Twenty-one of Chittister's essays in this coffee-table-sized art book are accompanied by Lentz's gorgeous icons, and sitting quietly with the delicate artistry and subtle palette of his renditions of Charles DeFoucald, Mary Magdalene, and Edith Stein offers the sort of soul-nourishing meditation found only in the encounter with beauty.

Two other wonderful books on saints are Virgil Elizondo's Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (Orbis Books, 1997) and St. Francis and the Foolishness of God (Orbis Books, 1993) by Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia MoeLobeda, and Stuart Taylor. In Guadalupe, Elizondo -- a San Antonio pastor and theologian -- explores the story of Latin America's most important religious shrine. Elizondo argues that when Mary chose to appear before the Indian peasant Juan Diego as a native maiden, she was proclaiming God's own solidarity with the voiceless of the New World. It's a message that continues to have relevance in our own day, Elizondo says.

In a similar fashion St. Francis and the Foolishness of God examines the political and economic implications of the beloved friar of Assisi, suggesting that in his practice of and teachings on poverty, simplicity, non-violence, community, and the love of all living things, we will find a spirituality that is both profoundly contemporary and challenging.

Anyone looking for yet more spiritual reading by or about saints should look into two excellent series by Paulist and St. Mary's Presses. The Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press) offers readers scholarly but accessible single-volume collections of the writings of Saints Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and others, including a goodly number of Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, and Native American voices.

Meanwhile, Companions for the Journey (St. Mary's Press) is a series of prayer books composed of the reflections and meditations of different saints. In volumes like Thomas McKenna's Praying with Vincent de Paul and James Allaire's and Rosemary Broughton's Praying with Dorothy Day, readers are able to join their own prayers and petitions with those of saints who have stood in similar places and whose voices now join us in the larger communion of saints.

Unfortunately a lot of the spirituality best-sellers in this country never get beyond the self-help stage, even though any authentic Christian spirituality must ultimately come to grips with the demands of justice. After all, jesus makes it quite clear that we cannot approach the holy if we are not at peace with our sisters and brothers.

Over the last decade or so there have been a number of minor classics driving home the connection between Christian spirituality and the call to work for justice in the world. Four that I would recommend very highly are: Jon Sobrino's Spirituality of Liberation: Toward Political Holiness (Orbis Books, 1988), Donal Dorr's Spirituality & Justice (Orbis Books, 1985), Robert McAfee Brown's Spirituality & Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy (Westminster Press, 1988), and Dorothee Soelle's The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality (Augsburg Fortress, 1990).

In differing ways and out of varying contexts, each of these books drives home the point that there can be no real Christian spirituality that does not respond to the cries of the poor and oppressed, any more than there can be a meaningful Christian struggle for justice that is not grounded in an authentic search for the face of God.

Three recent texts that make this point quite well are William Reiser's To Hear God's Word, Listen to the World (Paulist Press, 1997), Pia Gyger's That We May Join Earth and Heaven (Sheed and Ward, 1996), and Soelle's On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing (West-minster, 1993).

In To Hear God's Word, Listen to the World, Reiser argues that in prayer we are not locked into a private conversation with God but immersed in the larger conversation of God and humanity. It's an immersion that, Reiser claims, places us in radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Thus we do not find our spirituality by looking merely to our own interior castles but by opening our hearts and lives to the communion of saints who stand in our breadlines and sleep in our alleys.

Likewise, Gyger's point in That We May Join Earth and Heaven is that our spirituality must be grounded in the larger world in which we live. We require an integral theology, one that can speak to both the personal and global dimensions of our experience, one that makes the promise of Christ real for human history.

Finally, Soelle's On Earth as in Heaven offers readers a practical guide to doing a spirituality of justice, walking us through her four steps: praxis, analysis, meditation, and renewed praxis. Beginning with the concrete experience of the world's dispossessed, Soelle helps us to formulate a spirituality that faces injustice and is nurtured by a faith that empowers. It is not light reading. But neither are the gospels.

The gospels are the subject of two final recommendations for your spiritual reading: Ched Myers' Say to This Mountain: Mark's Story of Discipleship (Orbis Books, 1997) and Megan McKenna's Parables: The Arrows of God (Orbis Books, 1997).

Building on the work he did in his monumental study of Mark's gospel, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Orbis Books, 1988), educator and activist Myers has collaborated with a group of Catholic and Protestant authors in creating a book that introduces readers to the social demands of Jesus' call to discipleship, and places those demands in the context of our contemporary world. This probing book also offers readers numerous meditations and practical suggestions for action.

McKenna's Parables reintroduces us to the stories with which Jesus proclaims God's reign. If spirituality is about our search for the holy, then clearly the inspiring and unsettling tales jesus used to break open the hearts and minds of his listeners must be an important part of our making way for the reign of God. McKenna helps us to read them again, for the first time.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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