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May 29, 2023

The Spiritual Life: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr.

When I write, which is distressingly infrequently of late, my work almost always has a large dose of the spiritual to it. What I have understood that to mean was regular people reacting to how they encounter God and the Church. Reacting to God and Church seems to be a universal experience. Each reaction is unique of course, and some are positive and some are not, yet everyone I have ever met has either assimilated some concept of God and Church, or has established a set of beliefs in opposition to God and the Church.

For example, in response to the question of where the world came from, people will either relate one of a myriad of creation stories, or will propose their own understanding of the origin of the universe, an explanation that frequently includes some variation of the phrase "there is no evidence indicating any kind of supernatural intervention in the process."

In the broadest sense, the casting about for an understanding of the circumstances in which one finds oneself is my understanding of the spiritual life. In my world view it doesn't matter whether you use the language of science or religion to describe your experience since were you to know all the things that are possible to know, you would know God.

Of course you are free to disagree, and in the end, one of us will be right.

When I saw the A Spiritual Life sitting on the library bookshelf, my curiosity was piqued. "Two dozen poets, prophets and preachers share their reflections on what makes a 'good spiritual life,'" the cover said. That is not something you find a lot in our culture ... unfortunately. We tend to think of others' spirituality as a private affair. Asking "How are you?" rarely is interpreted as an invitation to expound on a particularly enlightening meditative session or to share the intense feelings associated with sacramental encounters. In fact we hardly have language for that anymore. So a book filled with essays specifically about "the spiritual life" seemed promising. And this book was from an ostensibly Protestant bent. I admit that I stick pretty close to home in my reading, so most of what I read is from Catholic authors. It might do me some good, I reasoned, to listen to a few of our "separated brethren."

A Spiritual Life is a collection of twenty four essays written by ordained ministers, professors, and professionals representing Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and yes, even Catholic traditions. The essays cover a large range of expression. There is, for instance, a scholarly treatment by Donald Capps, an Evangelical Lutheran, of the life of Philip Brooks, a noted Episcopalian minister and author of the poem "O Little Town of Bethlehem," a poem that Capps convincingly demonstrates reflects the method of meditation developed Ignatius of Loyola, the Catholic founder of the Jesuits. There are some stunningly personal journeys. Kerry Egan recounts in her essay how breast-feeding her first born led to a revelation of sorts about the Eucharist:

On this night a thought seeped through. By the time I noticed it, I had been repeating a phrase over and over again: "Take this and eat it. This is my body."

I looked down at Jimmy as he clung to me. "Oh," I said aloud. He stirred, lifted his half-closed eyes to me, and then rooted around until he found the nipple again and settled back into my armpit.

"So that's what that means," I whispered.

After thirty-one years as a cradle Catholic, the Eucharist finally made sense.

Yet with her second child, Mary, the experience was horribly different:

...Mary screamed and twisted and arched her back till she almost fell out of arms. Nursing was not warm and cozy for either of us. Mary would nurse for a few minutes, and then pull away to scream and arch, then come back to the nipple to nurse a little while longer, crying while she drank, tears smearing across my breasts. She clawed my skin, drawing blood, and mashed my nipples between her gums. She often spit up while trying to suckle, and choked her herself on her own vomit. We have very few pictures of her first months of life, and in those that we do, her eyes are always swollen half shut, her face is a mottled red, and she is grimacing. She sometimes stopped in a moment of calm and looked at me. I though I saw reproach and devastation in her bloodshot eyes.

For ten months, Kerry and Mary endured "the nursing battle." Afterwards she would wonder:

The eighteenth-century novelist William Makepeace Thackeray wrote, "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children." That's a heavy burden to any mother. especially the mother who cannot comfort her child, who comes to resent needing to comfort her child.

Does God ever feel that way about me? I wondered. I hoped not. -- from "Nursing, Eucharist, Psychosis, Metaphor" by Kerry Egan

Richard Osmer, a Presbyterian minister, draws on a lifelong fascination with fantasy literature to draw some excellent parallels to the spiritual life:

Christian spirituality today focuses almost exclusively on providence, on the task of helping Christians to recover an awareness of God's presence in their lives and to discern God's guidance. Too often, however, this emphasis on providence gives little attention to the themes of Christian eschatology: God's promised future for creation and the "eschatological reserve," or ambiguity and incompleteness, of our journey toward this future. Providence without eschatology leaves spirituality vulnerable to the success stories of popular American culture. These stories suggest that if we pray and trust God, then our lives will be showered with God's blessings, with little sense of the ambiguities of our choices or the cost of discipleship.

No author of contemporary fantasy has depicted the close relationship between providence and eschatology more brilliantly than Tolkien in his trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
-- from "Fantasy Literature and the Spiritual Life" by Richard Osmer

The essays in this collection are scholarly yet accessible. Each provides a window onto the author's innermost thoughts. Each is an invitation to share one person's journey to an awareness of self and other. It is well written, sometimes breathtakingly written, informative and entertaining. I could not have been more pleased with what I found in this book. And I was particularly pleased that with each author, while presenting the reader with experiences of the spiritual life with which the reader could identify, nonetheless was able to avoid syncretism, the compromising or watering down of their own faith traditions. I came away from this book challenged to know more of about the writings of John Calvin and Karl Barth whose ideas were so obviously influential to many of the essayists.

So, you may wonder, why would you want to take on the task of reading a book on the spiritual life? The Editor answers this question in his own essay:

People talk about the spiritual life in terms of a desire to live in closer relationship to God. They muse about life's meaning, purpose, and the human values that follow. Sometimes they speak in terms of wanting more insight or wisdom regarding this or that problem or option. For some, a desire for healing or newfound inner or relational peace remains bound to their views of and need for a spiritual life. Whatever the specifics, however, I often sense that when people speak about the spiritual life, they have in mind the kind of life notably different from the one they currently live.

I also get the sense that whatever the spiritual life is to them, it's important; so I want to know more of what they know and certainly gain knowledge that comes by way of experience, whether my own, others', or both. Another reason I sought to do this book is that, selfishly, I want some of the wisest people I know to teach me what they know about the spiritual life, especially by virtue of their experiences. If that's not possible, I want at least to know how they approach the questions relating to the spiritual life as they seek to know and experience more of it themselves. In this way, I am spiritually hungry. -- from "More Religious Than Spiritual" by Allen Cole

To that end, Rev. Cole, you have succeeded admirably.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-07-16
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