If this were an ideal world and I had all the time in the universe to do everything I would like, I’d be reading all sorts of books — and writing lengthy reviews of many of them on this blog. But, alas, ours is not an ideal world, and so like everyone else I have to make do. And so, in that spirit of making do, here are a few brief comments about some interesting books that have come to my attention lately. Some of them are new and some have been around for a while, but I think they are all worth a look. If my brief comments pique your interest, then please click on the cover images or the title links to purchase your own copies. I should also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that each of these books (except for the Merton titles) were sent to me gratis from the publishers. Of course, there are plenty of other books that publishers send me that I never mention on the blog, so I hope you’ll take my words at face value.
First of all, for all you breviary addicts (I know you’re out there), two of my favorite young writers — Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove — have joined forces with Enuma Okoro to develop Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. This ecumenical/interdenominational resource offers a weekly round of evening prayers, along with a complete annual cycle of morning prayers, a mid-day office, and a selection of prayers for special occasions. Various saints and heroes of the faith are commemorated, ranging from Thomas Merton to Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr. to dear Saint Benedict. As someone who has prayed the Roman liturgy for some time now, there are to my mind real limitations to this breviary: no office of compline, no structuring of the Daily Office to echo the cosmos and the human lifespan in each daily round of prayers. But I don’t this book is intended to replace existing liturgies like the Roman or Anglican offices. Rather I think it’s meant to be an introduction to liturgical prayer for a young generation of evangelicals, who have grown up in a church where singing contemporary praise music is about as liturgical as it gets. In that sense, I think this a brilliant and much-needed resource. And for liturgy snobs like me, it’s a wonderful addition to the library, with some wonderful prayers and commemorations geared toward a spirituality anchored in the call to justice. Another nice touch: each month the book features one of the “twelve marks” of neo-monasticism.
There are a lot of books available on Benedictine spirituality. Many of them are written by laypersons who may never have lived in a monastery (authors like Esther de Waal and Norvene Vest); others are written by monks but primarily for monks (Terrence Kardong, Adalbert de Vogüé). Please don’t misunderstand me — most of such books are wonderful, and I don’t mean to criticize the authors I’ve listed; I like works by all of them). But what makes Lessons from Saint Benedict: Finding Joy in Daily Life a noteworthy book is that its author, Donald S. Raila, is an oblate master at a large Benedictine abbey, specifically writing for oblates: men and women who are not monks, but who have placed themselves under the spiritual guidance of monks and who seek to conduct their secular lives according to the wisdom of Benedict. Buddhists talk about “taking refuge” as the initiation into the life of following the dharma; for Benedictine oblates (and their counterparts, lay Cistercians), there is a similar sense of “taking refuge” under the guidance of the monks at a particular monastery. As the master of oblates at St. Vincent’s Archabbey, Fr. Raila writes a quarterly letter to the oblates on an aspect of the Rule and Benedictine spirituality; this book gathers 26 of those letters. Raila’s writing is homey and down-t0-earth; he recognizes that the key to applying Benedictine wisdom is to see how it makes a difference in the most ordinary circumstances of life, from travel delays to hernias to a wristwatch that runs just a few seconds slow each day. Raila understands that spirituality is all about the slow and unglamorous transformation of every moment of life, and his thoughtful but accessible insights are ideal invitations to meditation and reflection.
The Sin Eater: A Breviary is not a liturgical work per se, but an anthology of poems and photographs evocative of a lost age of Celtic spirituality. Undertakers Thomas and Michael Lynch (father and son) share an Irish eye for beauty that can be found hidden in the most stark and unadorned of places; this cycle of carefully structured poems, each illustrated by a sombre black and white photograph, invite the reader into the life of Argyle, the titular sin-eater and perhaps Thomas’ alter ego. The sin-eater is a liminal figure (neither pagan nor priest, neither therapist nor healer, neither magician nor mystic) who symbolizes — or, perhaps, sacramentalizes? — the borderlines between religion and spirituality, between culture and nature, between death and life, all situated in the hidden-away setting of the Lynchs’ ancestral Irish home. Earthy, blunt language of death and decay — but also eros and irony — dance through these poems, where the hidden presence of the Divine is found not through pious formula, but evoked by honesty and wonder.
Finally, I’d like to briefly mention a series of books published by Fons Vitae, celebrating the ecumenical and interfaith dimensions of Thomas Merton’s work. These collections: Merton & Buddhism, Merton & Hesychasm, Merton & Judaism and Merton & Sufism, gather together writings of Merton with relevant essays by Merton scholars exploring his relationship with each of four traditions outside his own. These books certainly will help to solidify Merton’s reputation as the patron saint of ecumenical and interfaith contemplatives. Grab the one that most appeals to you — or if you are as intellectually curious as Merton himself, read all four.