Tuesday Reading Roundup

“The First Epistle to the Thessalonians”
From loving pastoral guidance to an early Christian to apocalyptic descriptions of the end of the world, this book really has it all. Seriously, though, I keep being struck by this, 1 Thess. 4:9-12 (emphasis mine, which may have to do with trying to find JP2’s reverence for manual labor inside my current latte-centric paycheck):

But concerning love of the brethren you have no need to have any one write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brethren throughout Macedonia. But we exhort you, brethren, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.

Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton
Sometimes I forget that Merton was not just a great spiritual sage and teacher but that he had a great mind too. He taught theology to monks and priests, after all, and he was essential to the beginning of Cistercian studies as an academic endeavor. In the last week, this book blossomed from a deep book about contemplative prayer practice to a book about the history of the contemplative tradition inside and outside of Christian monasticism. The closest similar work I’ve read, looking at theological development and history at the same time, is Simon Tugwell’s Ways of Imperfection.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
You decide if it’s worth reading.

Read this blog and be thought-provoked. You can start here: “Manly Me (Theology Edition)” and its follow-up “Un-Womanly Me (A post about, and full of, paradoxes),” both by Brandy Daniels.

Look! There! On the horizon! Fresh from the Amazon warehouse!:
Together with a couple friends, I’ll be tackling The [René] Girard Reader. Look for some wrestlings with it in the next couple weeks.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

Prototype: What Happens When You Discover That You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think?
by Jonathan Martin

It was an oversight that left this off of my listing for the last Roundup, because clearly I was already reading it. This morning I finished this book with my appetite whetted rather than satisfied. I would love for Martin to write both a memoir and a novel, and I would read both of those and perhaps be closer to satisfied, because he is a fantastic storyteller.

Jonathan, if you somehow read this, (1) no, you are not too young to write a memoir (as Lauren Winner proves) and (2) the novel can be about anything and your stamp will be on it (in a great way).

Everyone else should listen to the Renovatus podcast. (I recommend starting with “Suffering” from 7/1/12.)

Contemplative Prayer
by Thomas Merton

Several years ago I decided that the monks had a good idea (#facetiousalert) when they made devotional reading part of their daily spiritual rhythms, and I’ve added such readings to my daily devotionals ever since. This is the current book in that position.

According to Douglas Steere’s Foreword (not to be confused with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Introduction), this was Thomas Merton’s final book before his death. I honestly don’t know if that means it was published or completed or mostly completed and then pulled together posthumously, but it is at least a symbolic culmination of Merton’s life and teaching. It is deep and intense and knowledgeable in a way that makes me think, “I could return to this book once every eight months or so, for the next several decades, and it would be a new book every time.” Which is why I shared a lengthy quote from it two days ago.

Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner

I discovered Wallace Stegner at a church rummage sale over ten years ago, with this very copy of this very book. He’s one of those ‘writer’s writer’ types, supposedly, someone whom writers know and read, but who never enjoyed a ton of wide knowledge and acclaim (crazy to say, since he won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for two separate works). I apparently have something about books written at the end of people’s lives, because this was Stegner’s final novel, and all his wisdom and skill are deposited in it.

It’s also one of those books that I’ve been afraid to return to, because I love it so much that a re-read twelve or thirteen years later can only diminish my memory of it. Why do I love it? Because it’s a quiet novel which has a plot but which is about its characters. It’s also about friendship over time, and more and more I believe that maybe about the most important thing we have on earth.

Meditation “firmly rooted in life”

Merton Contemplative Prayer

[T]he supposed “inner life” may actually be nothing but a brave and absurd attempt to evade reality altogether. Under the pretext that what is “within” is in fact real, spiritual, supernatural, etc., one cultivates neglect and contempt for the “external” as worldly, sensual, material and opposed to grace. This is bad theology and bad asceticism. In fact it is bad in every respect, because instead of accepting reality as it is, we reject it in order to explore some perfect realm of abstract ideals which in fact has no reality at all. Very often, the inertia and repugnance which characterize the so-called “spiritual life” of many Christians would perhaps be cured by a simple respect for the concrete realities of every-day life, for nature, for the body, for one’s work, one’s friends, one’s surroundings, etc. A false supernaturalism which imagines that “the supernatural” is a kind of Platonic realm of abstract essences totally apart from and opposed to the concrete world of nature, offers no real support to a genuine life of meditation and prayer. Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life. Without such roots, it can produce nothing but the ashen fruits of disgust, acedia, and even morbid and degenerate introversion, masochism, dolorism, negation. Nietzsche pitilessly exposed the hopeless mess which results from this caricature of Christianity!

The Contemplative Heart by James Finley

James Finley is best known for having been a student at the Abbey of Gethsemani under Thomas Merton, and his best known book is Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, which deals with Merton’s concept of the true and false selves. Finley himself eventually left Gethsemani, married, trained and still practices as a psychotherapist, but he never left the contemplative life behind.

Finley claims early on in The Contemplative Heart that he is writing an introduction to the contemplative life. This is true: you can be introduced to contemplation in these pages in the same sense that you can be introduced to swimming in Lake Michigan. Folks looking for an introduction should probably look elsewhere, however, because this book can be overwhelming both in its content and in its writing style.

Conservative Christians may come to the book and be turned off immediately. Finley tends not to want to make much distinction between God and human beings (or anything else), he’s not interested in using precise theological language (at least in the academic sense) to describe the human experience of God, and he is quite open to non-specifically-Christian spiritual paths.

The names of the book’s parts make clear its depths and particularity: (1) A Contemplative Vision of Life; (2) Find Your Contemplative Practice and Practice It; (3) Find Your Contemplative Community and Enter It; (4) Find Your Contemplative Teaching and Enter It. This is about contemplation as a discipline, not as a life strategy or a technique for managing stress or anything else but as a life in and of God. (Not to say that Finley would have any problem with people starting wherever they start.)

This is an excellent book, with excellent insights, which are drawn from decades of reading, practice, and leading others in practice. Finley draws from deep wells: his own Catholic faith, his time as a monk, his training in psychotherapy, his relationship with his wife, as well as his knowledge of Eastern traditions (Buddhism in particular). I would love a chance to do a retreat with him.

To gain the most from this book, do not get a copy and decide to read it like a novel. Parcel it out to yourself, day by day. I spent about two months with it, and that was the right pace; it’s rich food that takes time to experience, savor, chew, and digest.

Here’s a tidbit, complete with Finley’s writing style asking to be taken in in small pieces, intentionally drawing the reader into a contemplative posture even while reading:

Our egocentric self sets out with an egocentric understanding of what it means to be free of the tyranny of egocentricity. This egocentric understanding is that of having to jump over a bar that is set so high that only the most finely tuned spiritual athlete could ever hope to clear it. Our struggles with distractions, sleepiness and indifference brings us to a point of near despair, convincing us that our doubts were true concerning our inability to master such a seemingly unreachable challenge. Then, just as we are spent in the futility of investing ourselves in our own illusions concerning the nature of the fulfillment that alludes us, the saving event happens. Love steps out and places the bar flat on the ground! Approaching the bar, disoriented by the unthinkable simplicity of the task, we trip over it, falling headlong into God, wholly poured out in and as who we simply are—all precious in our fragility, strangely whole and one with God in the midst of our fragmentation.

And, yes, Finley does spell it alludes, not eludes. I believe it may have been intentional.