Here is a list of books for you to consider for the folks on your Nice List this holiday season. These are all books that either I, or in a few my cases my wife, have read over the past year and feel are worthy of our endorsement. Some of these are new books, and some are old; most are Christian, although a few are not; and most are “spiritual” although again, a few might not appear that way — on the surface. But they are all great reads and well worth your attention. As always, a click on the title takes you to Amazon for your ordering pleasure (and thank you; for your orders help support this website and my ministry).
Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, to Doubt, Divine — I’ve been a fan of Peter Rollins since his first book came out five years ago; I’m happy to report that his latest — his first with a major publisher — retains his insightful exploration of apophatic themes such as mystery, unknowing, and darkness. The premise of this book is startling in its simplicity and solid logic: we know that Jesus experienced both suffering and a sense of desolation in being crucified (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”); so any spirituality worthy of being called Christian must likewise take us into a similar harrowing place of despair and doubt. And while Rollins does not flinch from criticizing the church’s cowardice in avoiding the shadow side of the imitation of Christ, his creative theology should prove inspiring for anyone willing to explore the heart of mystery — which, after all, is the essence of authentic mysticism.
Sarah Maitland, A Book of Silence — One of the most luminously beautiful literary works I’ve read in quite some time, this lyrical book functions both as a memoir of Maitland’s journey into a deeper love for, and relationship with, silence, as well as a thoughtful and insightful meditation on the nature, meaning, and spirituality of silence and its first cousin, solitude. Maitland is known not only for her award-winning fiction but also for several works of feminist theology, so naturally this book has a religious feel to it; but she is aware that the pleasures and perils of silence transcend all dogma, and so she draws on secular as well as sacred sources to forge her unique insights on the presence that is found within the absence of sound. If you are serious about exploring contemplative or meditative silence in your own life, read this book; if you’re like me, you will discover new things about yourself in its pages.
Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian — One of the most interesting and helpful books on interfaith dialog and interspirituality I have ever read. Knitter, trained in Rome as a Catholic theologian who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, tells the story of his own faith journey and how both study and practice of Buddhist dharma has strengthened his understanding and identity of being Christian. Although he is clearly wrestling with theological issues, Knitter’s writing is lucid so that even those without formal training in theology can appreciate what he has to say. He considers questions related to God, Christ, heaven, prayer and meditation, and peace, looking at how difficulties inherent in Christian thought can be addressed (if not resolved) by considering Buddhist perspectives. Ultimately Knitter embraces a “dual-practitioner” identity as a committed Christian who is simultaneously a committed Buddhist. But I think anyone who cares about interfaith exploration on any level would benefit from his insightful journey.
Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding —This collection of essays explores what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, from considering the missing element in so many discussions of contemplation (“beholding”), to a frank but sober assessment of how a spiritual awakening might be our only hope as we consider the breadth and depth of environmental degradation that characterizes today’s world. Ross’s writing is infused with an appreciation of wilderness, not only for its own sake but also as a key element in authentic spirituality. Ross writes eloquently about the spirituality of tears — not as some sort of emotional manipulation, as so much religious spectacle seems to promote — but rather as an authentic embracing of sorrow, of loss, of repentance, of grief, of letting-go — that ushers us in to that place, where, in our letting go (kenosis) we encounter the kenotic God. This is the place of transfiguration, beyond any “technology” or “experience.”
Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation — A sequel to his masterful introduction to contemplative prayer, Into the Silent Land (if you, or the person you’re gifting, hasn’t read that book, then get it too!). Laird’s writing is economical and clear, offering gentle and practical advice for those seeking to establish a regular practice of resting in silence as a way to embrace the Mystery of God. Laird particularly shines when he addresses common problems in the practice of prayer, including boredom, distractions that cloud awareness, and dealing with emotional challenges such as panic or depression. He is a keen observer of how the grasping dimension of the human mind (the “ego”) subtly tries to undermine the vast freedom of true contemplation, and offers practical advice for lessening the egoic grip and learning to humbly receive the gifts that God offers us in radical silence.
James Martin, My Life with the Saints — A book that is both sweetly inspirational and gently honest, this memoir of popular Catholic author James Martin tells his spiritual autobiography by detailing the many saints for whom he has had special devotions over the years. Martin has a broad understanding of sainthood (he includes in his list Thomas Merton, who is most assuredly not on the Vatican’s short list for canonization) and introduces us to both well-known (Francis of Assisi) and more obscure (Aloysius Gonzaga) examples of the heroes of sanctity. And while it is always enlightening to read his encomiums for figures like Mother Teresa or the Ugandan Martyrs, what really makes this book a must-read is the insight readers get into Martin himself, who manages to pull off the tricky matter of balancing candor about himself with heartfelt devotion to both Christ and the Church.
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life — This book considers how the goals and purpose of the spiritual life evolve over the lifespan; what is important and necessary in the first half of life might actually impede our spiritual calling in the second half. But as an institution, Christianity is almost exclusively geared toward first-half-of-life issues (creating a spiritual identity, finding one’s place in the world, and adopting a code of conduct appropriate for that identity and place) and leaves those wrestling with the second-half-of-life issues (finding meaning, giving back to others, learning to let go of the limitations that identity/place entail) to basically fend for themselves. Without attacking the church for its limitations, Rohr offers a viable roadmap for those who wish to embrace the wisdom of maturity, even when it leads to places that traditional religion simply is not equipped to address.
Roland Merullo, Breakfast with Buddha — This novel explores the collision point between skepticism and spirituality during an unlikely road trip where a skeptical New York businessman named Otto and a Buddhist roshi travel together from New Jersey to North Dakota. Trying to make the most of it, Otto shows his passenger a slice of American life, from visiting Hershey’s Chocolate Factory to an evening at a bowling alley; the roshi, meanwhile, gently challenges Otto to see both his dysfunctional family dynamics and his own armored way of doing life in a new light. Whimsically written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, this book pulls off a rare feat: it gives both faith and doubt an authentic voice, and finds a way to make peace with both secular cynicism and spiritual belief without throwing either viewpoint under the proverbial bus. Otto never becomes a true believer, but his encounter with the spiritual master does change him in some surprising ways.
Julian of Norwich, All Shall Be Well: Revelations of Divine Love, translated by Ellyn Sanna — I’ve looked at many translations of Julian of Norwich over the years, and at first glance, this one seems the most offbeat: the translator sometimes changes words where the meaning in the middle English has now become obscured, even if the word is still used in today’s religious circles: for example, Christ’s passion (a topic dear to Mother Julian) is called in this book Christ’s “endurance.” Also, following Julian’s assertion that God is both father and mother, this translation uses the pronoun “she” often when referring to God. While purists may decry this work for its inaccuracy, I see it as similar to Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of the Bible: as a paraphrase designed to introduce new readers to the work, and to startle “old timers” with a fresh way of approaching the text. I’m seeing this first-hand: this has become my wife’s favorite translation of Julian, and she’s giving several copies to friends this Christmas. As a bonus, the Kindle version is very attractively priced at only $5.99.
Leif Hetland, Seeing Through Heaven’s Eyes: A World View that will Transform Your Life — I haven’t had a chance to read this one yet, but my wife is plowing through it and loves it. Hetland is a Norwegian pastor, a living prodigal son figure who returned from a life of drug addiction and homelessness to embrace a truly mystical spirituality that emphasizes God’s passionate love for each of us. Hetland writes that we have been created “to bear God’s image and to establish His heavenly Kingdom here on earth.” With a theology reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s epiphany, Hetland sees each human being as a co-creator and co-lover with God, called to dance with the Trinity and the human family in a circle of love, joy and harmony. To see through heaven’s eyes is to see all things how God sees — with Godly love, compassion and purpose.
Lorna Byrne, Angels in My Hair: The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic — A publicist sent me a review copy of this book, probably because it has the word “mystic” in the title. I think it’s rather more accurate to describe Byrne as a visionary who sees the presence of angels around her and others. My wife loves memoirs so I passed it on to her, and she has been talking about this book ever since. Byrne tells her story of growing up poor in Ireland, of becoming a young widow with four children at home, and finally breaking through her dyslexia to find the confidence to tell her remarkable story. The angels are a source of encouragement, guidance, comfort, and assistance, and Byrne’s message, which comes from her own angelic guides, is simple and hopeful: each of us has angels waiting to support us; all we have to do is ask.
Robert A. Emmons, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier — After a meditation instructor recommended I read this book, I found a copy, but my wife got to it first. This is a book about gratitude and the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits that arise from cultivating thankfulness in one’s life. Emmons gathers a wealth of scientific data and personal anecdotes to survey the research done on this topic, and shows that something as simple as keeping a daily gratitude journal for as little as three weeks can provide observable benefits such as increased sleep and improved energy levels. By cultivating gratitude, we learn to want and enjoy the present blessings in our life, which in turn leads to an increased well-being, allowing for even greater joy. That’s a feedback loop anyone can benefit from! The final chapter includes practical tips for increasing the gratitude quotient in your life.
Finally, if you’d like a few more gift ideas, please visit my Amazon store: http://astore.amazon.com/earthmystic — and I humbly hope you will consider giving my books as gifts! Here are the direct links: The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader. Many blessings to you and your loved ones for a happy holiday season.