Part 2 of What I Read January - June: Spiritual Direction and Prayer category [from the book pile 2019]

As we enter the last few weeks of summer, I’m sharing the rest of the books I read the first half of 2019. (You can see Part 1 here.)

Part 2 of my reading list includes all of the titles I read for my Spiritual Direction certification as well as a few other titles on spirituality and prayer that I added on my own.

Hope you enjoy the micro reviews + publisher blurbs! Let me know if you add anything from this list to your book pile!

Spiritual Direction books.jpg

You can see my 2018 reading list here. | You can see all my reading lists since 2006 here.

One other note: A couple years ago I began using Amazon affiliate links as a way to bring in some pocket change from the books I share on the blog. I was challenged by an independent bookseller to reconsider this strategy as Amazon has a horrible reputation in its dealings with authors and other members of the book industry. I want to champion local business and humane working relationships and so I've included an IndieBound link that will direct you to purchase any of the following books from an independent bookseller near you. I've also included the order link for one of my new favorite booksellers, Hearts and Minds Books.  Using the link I've provided you can order any book through, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. They even offer the option to receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check! Brian and I've been delighted with the generous attention we've received from owners Byron and Beth Borger. We feel like we've made new friends! (I also highly recommend subscribing to Byron's passionately instructive and prolific Booknotes posts.)

Spirituality / Prayer / Spiritual Direction

17. The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry, William J. Connolly

(HarperOne, 240pp. June 2, 2009)

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“The classic work on helping people become closer to God. Fathers Barry and Connolly see the work of spiritual direction as helping people to develop their relationship with God. In thinking and practice they have absorbed the insights of modern psychotherapy, but have not been absorbed by them. This highly practical book reflects the authors' experience at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where spiritual direction is available and where directors are trained.”

Micro Review: In Barry & Connolly’s Practice of Spiritual Direction I was struck with encouragement that spiritual directors should possess a kind of love the authors called a “surplus of warmth” in order to foster relationships with the various personalities and life circumstances. I appreciated the additional insight to that surplus of warmth as the three attitudes: commitment, effort to understand, and spontaneity. The attitude of spontaneity as defined by the authors felt especially encouraging to me as I’ve wondered about what it means to be myself in relation to those I direct:

“Spontaneity means that spiritual directors are themselves, not controlled and inhibited by their role as spiritual directors, but able to express their own feelings, thoughts, and hopes when expressing them will be helpful to directees. Without spontaneity, ‘commitment and effort to understand will appear cold, impersonal, and stereotyped’.”

Another favorite quotation that describes so well the qualities of a spiritual director that I’d hope to describe me:

“The kinds of men and women most likely to engender trust in others are those described in the same study as developed persons. They are not perfect, but they are relatively mature. They show signs of having engaged in life and with people. They are optimistic, but not naive, good-humored, but not glad-handers. They have suffered, but not been overcome by suffering. They have loved and been loved and know the struggle of trying to be a friend to another. They have friends for whom they care deeply. They have experienced failure and sinfulness - their own and others' - but seem at ease with themselves in a way that indicates an experience of being saved and freed by a power greater than the power of failure and sin. They are relatively unafraid of life with all its light and darkness, all its mystery.”

Barry and Connolly offered some helpful insight into the realm of entering into prayer with those who may experience God, prayer, church, and spirituality in ways that differ from my own experience. They recommend that spiritual directors possess a knowledge of diverse Christian religious experiences in a posture of empathy and awareness of non-Christian religious experiences in order to “transcend...personal absolutes” and remain open to a “sense of wonder” toward the capability of God to communicate with people through a variety of experience.

In this way, I’m becoming less fearful of the more abstract terms I’ve read in my study of spiritual direction. For example, the following explanation of God as Mystery felt helpful to me:

“The Mystery we call God is just that - mystery; not mystery in the sense of an unknown, but eventually knowable, stranger, but mystery in the sense that God is too rich, too deep, and too loving to be knowable and is, therefore, God. Spiritual directors can be only helping companions to those who travel the way of such a God.”

Another paragraph I found especially helpful as I consider offering spiritual direction as a wife of a parish priest was Barry and Connolly’s description of “working alliances” and “conflicting loyalties” in chapter 9.

“Spiritual direction, therefore, explicitly acknowledges what is often only implicit in other forms of pastoral care: that the directees' desire for more life, more integration, more union with God is grounded in the indwelling Spirit and that God is an active Other in the relationship. The working alliance is thus grounded in mystery and explicitly acknowledges that the way, too, is mystery.”

18. Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction by Jeannette A. Bakke

(Baker Books, 288pp. October 1, 2000)

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“Directors and directees helped write this evangelical guide to the ancient spiritual direction process..”

Micro Review: Using the reflection questions at the close of each chapter helped me thoughtfully apply the themes of faith stages to my own spiritual journey. In the various timelines I sketched out from my individual experience, I was able to bring some painful patterns into the light. Some are fairly current experiences with loss and disillusion, some from childhood, but the most significant as I enter spiritual direction seem to be surrounding some difficult pastoral relationships from about ten years ago. Reflecting on the lifeline of friendships I drew in response to chapter 1 in Holy Invitations, one plain observation is that relationship - specifically those formed in family and church - mark out the ebb and flow of my journey. The stalls, sputters, and carefree cruising through my faith journey are most impacted, for good or ill, by my relationships at every point throughout my life.

The other theme in my reflections is the question of trust. In chapter 4 of Holy Invitations, I answer the question, “Do you see yourself as a predominantly trusting or untrusting person?”. My answer: “There’s definitely a paradox here!”  In the overview of my lifetime, trust swings like an overwound pendulum. In one season, the trust pendulum swung full-force one direction toward a wholehearted trust and belief in the best of people. In another season, the trust pendulum swung in the opposite direction toward a cautious, slow discernment before investing trust into others. When the pendulum gets stuck on the trust-at-all-costs side, I’ve lived out of an idealistic, romanticized, and boundaryless view of others. On the other extreme, I’ve operated out of a fearful, critical, hyper-vigilant suspicion of people and their motives. Neither extreme is actually a place of wholeness and openness. In the healing light of openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, both extremes are actually acts of relational sloth and self-protection, fueled by a kind of relational “cruise control”. 

I drew this paradox into my journal as an actual line with the extremes labelled at each end, and then marked over the middle the words “Freedom to trust people appropriately”. This sort of balance of the trust pendulum is weighted by the belief that the Holy Spirit instructs and nurtures my ability to give and receive trust. He is the source of true wholeness, and will lead and protect through, and, sometimes, in spite of, my relationships with others.

In some ways this observation is the pivotal point for my entry into spiritual direction training. While my non-denominational church upbringing included many blessed opportunities to give and receive formal and informal spiritual counsel, my understanding of the classic definition of spiritual direction came through the back door of my conversion within the last ten years to the Anglican communion. This is no small order of events, as the call to Anglican worship was, in part, my response to a truncated appreciation for the historic and universal Church which permeated everything from corporate worship to individual spiritual counsel and discipleship from pastors in the non-denominational congregations I’d worshipped in for the first forty years of my life.

 While the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide and heal us is not limited by our theological depth, the way we practice listening to the Spirit within our church communities impacts our Christian journey profoundly. In my experience in a church environment that preached the Gospel with clarity, but practiced it as a separate identity from the worldwide communion of saints, I found myself deeply wounded by an overemphasis on the authority and counsel of individual leaders. Even the pastors with gifts of discernment and an appreciation for the active presence of the Holy Spirit were limited in their ability to bless because there was a lack of accountability to a community of believers throughout the world and across time. I see this deeper dive into a classical understanding of spiritual direction as an important companion to my learning of the liturgy and theology of the ancient church. In the course of learning, I hope to grow deeper in a trusting communion with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May it be so.

19. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther

(Cowley Publications, 160pp. January 25, 1992)

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“Guenther uses the images of the spiritual director as host, teacher, and midwife to describe the ministry of spiritual direction today. She pays particular attention to spiritual direction for women, and addresses such down-to-earth questions as setting, time, and privacy. The stories of real people bring the practice of spiritual direction alive. "In the pages that follow, I will attempt to describe the shape that spiritual direction might take for people of our time, aware that the subject is an elusive one. I am speaking to the beginner, those persons lay or ordained, with or without formal theological training, who find themselves drawn to this ministry. Perhaps they feel the stirring of their own unacknowledged gifts. Or perhaps they wonder about receiving direction, whether it is a ministry available to 'ordinary people' or reserved for the especially holy. I hope some dark corners will be illuminated and some questions answered.”

Micro Review: I’ve read and re-read many of the insights she shares in chapter 4, “Women and Spiritual Direction”, including the following:

 “Maternal conversation is an appropriate mode for spiritual direction. The director is willing to listen and to be present to the directee where he is. By the very nature of the relationship, the director has been given tacit permission to ask questions. (This is in contrast to  polite conversation, which forbids asking anything that really matters.) But they must be the right questions, asked in a spirit of attentive love.”

“In the meantime, [women]  must still work to be taken seriously - especially lay women, whose gifts in spiritual direction are often unrecognized or undervalued. It is easier for directors who are ordained or are members of a religious order: a clerical collar or a religious habit makes a statement of authority. While academic courses or an impressive certificate cannot form a director when the innate gift is not there, seminary study, programs of certification, or a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education can set a woman director free to acknowledge and claim her authority. This is not to minimize the importance of formal study or supervised work, but the chief value of training is to legitimize this ministry in a time obsessed with credentials.”

Guenther’s insight into the potential overlaps between spiritual direction and motherhood provoked another whoop of “Amen!” later in the same chapter:

”While I haven’t yet reached this state of detachment, I have spent too long with the day-to-day realities of mothering to be sentimental about it. If I am now perceived as a motherly person, I would prefer to be seen as desert amma rather than a Hallmark mommy. Most important, for good or ill, I know that my own experience in mother colors the way in which I  do spiritual direction. And lest it sound as if I am excluding a large segment of the population, Meister Eckhart reminds us that we can all be mothers. While the experience of bearing nurturing a child is unique, maternal ways of being are available to all of us, men and women.”

20. Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color by Sherry Bryant-Johnson, Therese Taylor-Stinson, Rosalie Norman McNaney

(Morehouse Publishing, 158pp. March 10, 2013)

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• A solid new addition to the Morehouse collection for spiritual directors

• First book addressing the concerns and issues of people of color in spiritual direction

• Wide ecumenical appeal

“These essays speak of how we have incorporated our contemplative practices into our family life; our urban, non-religious background; how we have been nurtured in struggles for health and life through our contemplative prayer practices and our courage to survive and even thrive in the midst of dire circumstances. We speak of the unfolding bridge between faith and culture; our conflicts with an Interspiritual journey with a Christian foundation; our sexuality; our journey to healing and authenticity; and how we are taking this practice that began in the
first centuries of the church with the desert mothers and fathers to the present and into the future with spiritual direction through the Internet across the world.” ―from the Introduction”

Micro Review: Editors Sherry Bryant-Johnson, Roslie Norman-McNaney, and Therese Taylor-Stinson and provided a literal fleshing out of the exhortation that spiritual formation is for the sake of others. In the context of the themes of the Releasing Rhythm, highlighted the historical experience of the African American church as an entire community shaped by a wilderness experience of marginalization, poverty, and loss.

Within the context of relational dynamics and tensions within spiritual direction relationships, I continue to appreciate readings from Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color. Sherry Bryant-Johnson, in chapter 3, gave me greater insight into the loneliness of shared experience that persons of color find in texts for spiritual direction training. I’m grateful to Selah for introducing us to a few teachers who can provide a first-person witness to an experience other than my own as a white woman. I noticed with admiration Bryant-Johnson’s generosity to receive the wisdom of those who do not share her story, and feel called to do the same in searching out and listening to the wisdom of spiritual teachers from backgrounds different than my own. 

 I was drawn deeply to the short video of Sherry's conversation with Francoise Mbazoa, a spiritual director Sister from Cameroon. Their conversation gave me a greater sense of the rhythms of an African contemplative, and am grateful for the increased awareness of the ways in which cultural context affects how direction is explained and offered and experienced. I will carry this learning with me especially as I head into a second summer providing spiritual direction within an explicitly multi-cultural context. 

21. Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings by Janet K. Ruffing

(Paulist Press, 183pp. June 1, 2000)

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“Explores issues that arise in the advanced stages of spiritual direction from both a practical and theoretical perspective..”

Micro Review: Ruffing provides great insight into the ongoing work spiritual direction offers as we seek to help others draw closer to God. I found her insights on the subconscious phenomenon known as resistance that almost everyone naturally experiences at one time or another in response to God’s relentless pursuit of intimacy with His children.

For example:

“...Most of us are engaged in endlessly inventive evasion not only of the implications of spiritual experience, but often, and more confusingly, of the experiences of God that we claim to desire. God gently lures us into intimacy and unexpectedly explodes us into mystery. Such encounters with mystery are simply too much for most of us until our capacity expands and our tolerance increases over the course of our spiritual development. Most of us lose our nerve somewhere between the lure and the explosion. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, “...human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” Paul Tillich put it slightly differently and sympathetically: “If you’ve never run away from your God, I wonder who your God is.” Evasion is directly related to both the closeness of God’s approach to us and to our instinctive withdrawal from God’s presence. Experiences of God as mystery evoke awe, even fear, in the face of the numinous and uncontrollable otherness of God.”

22. The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith (Second Edition) by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich

(Sheffield Publishing Company; 2nd edition, 268 pp. December 31, 2004)

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“Guenther uses the images of the spiritual director as host, teacher, and midwife to describe the ministry of spiritual direction today. She pays particular attention to spiritual direction for women, and addresses such down-to-earth questions as setting, time, and privacy. The stories of real people bring the practice of spiritual direction alive. "In the pages that follow, I will attempt to describe the shape that spiritual direction might take for people of our time, aware that the subject is an elusive one. I am speaking to the beginner, those persons lay or ordained, with or without formal theological training, who find themselves drawn to this ministry. Perhaps they feel the stirring of their own unacknowledged gifts. Or perhaps they wonder about receiving direction, whether it is a ministry available to 'ordinary people' or reserved for the especially holy. I hope some dark corners will be illuminated and some questions answered.”

Micro Review: I found the sum total of the parts of each book I read for my certification a helpful clarification to some ambiguous feelings I’d harbored about the use of the word “journey” when describing one’s faith. In a recent conversation with my sister, I mentioned this dissonance and she said, “You’d better get use to that word because it’s going to come up all the time in spiritual direction training!” 

With special attention to The Critical Journey by Janet O. Hagberg and The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, what became clearer for me are the concrete mile markers that flesh out the more abstract notion of a journey. It’s the abstract that felt a bit dangerous to me, too open for individual interpretation and, therefore, a false understanding of Christian faith and discipleship. With more clarity (heightened by the overlap of agreement among the various readings) on the universal stages of a faith journey, I can now understand the term better as an individual timeline within a communal pathway (most simply described by Christ in John 14:6). I have a better appreciation for the Holy Spirit’s leadership to initiate and fuel the stages along the journey which creates a Christian counter to the nebulous journey of self-actualization described in the dominant culture.

“The Wall, a dark and sacred place, reeks of God. In the Wall we are vulnerable enough to listen to what God says - whether it is in the guise of other people’s voices, God’s voice, or serendipitous experiences. Once we believe that God is in the midst of the darkness with us, it can be a transforming place. We don’t necessarily get cured or erase our pain or become saints, but we learn how to embrace our pain, how to stay with it and learn what it is trying to teach us, how to look fear in the ace and keep moving into it. The Wall invites us each to heal.”

“The Wall invites us to integrate our spiritual selves with the rest of us. And that involves facing our own and others’ demons. We must face that which we fear the most, and that is why it is fo unsavory, and why so many people only enter the Wall under duress. At the Wall we are usually asked to embrace our illnesses and addictions and to relinquish that which we’ve clung to our which we worship. We encounter oceans of unresolved grief covered by anger, bitterness, martyrdom, hurt, or fear. The Wall is a place where we confront the desire to deny or disguise the inner self and begin to mentor the true self - the self God intended for us - and to recognize the meaning of our shadow.”

23. Care of Mind/Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction by Gerald G. May

(HarperOne, 256pp. May 8, 1992)

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“Although secular psychology addressed a great deal about how we come to be the way we are and how we might live more efficiently, it can offer nothing in terms of why we exist or how we should use our lives," writes Gerald May in this classic discussion of the nature of contemporary spiritual guidance and its relationship to counseling and psychiatry. For millions turning for answers to the world of the spirit, May shows how psychiatry and spiritual direction are alike, how they complement one another, and how they ultimately diverge.”

Micro Review: In the realm of learning discernment as I encounter various spiritual experiences among those I direct, I was grateful to Gerald May’s description of “unitive experiences” in chapter 3, and later about “excessive preoccupation with psyche and evil”.

And also:

“Excessive preoccupation with psyche and evil - either from supportive or antagonistic standpoints - fosters a degree of self-consciousness and self-importance that is very likely to eclipse the ever-present mystery of God's truth. Discernments are essential, but it is not at all necessary or helpful to become attached to making them. If possible, it is best to see psychological phenomena such as dreams, fantasies, images, and thoughts as manifestations of God's potential in the same way that nature, art, relationships, and all other phenomena are. Gazing into an empty, blue sky, kneeling in prayer in a cathedral, and recalling memories associated with a dream can all be worthwhile spiritual explorations. They can also all be distractions from spiritual exploration. The beauty of the sky or the cathedral can create an absorption with sensate experience, just as dream analysis can create ego-absorption.”

My personal experience growing up around a variety of church denominations with various understandings of the role of the Holy Spirit through a variety of natural and supernatural pathways has left me a bit skeptical of the experiences that fall on the more supernatural end of the spectrum. At the same time, I’ve experienced some of those hard-to-articulate connections with God and I long for a better understanding of what it means to discern those kinds of encounters. I found Dr. May’s encouragement to “test the fruits” enlivening and confidence-boosting: 

“The importance of experiences lies not so much in their precise nature as in one's response to them. In part this represents a harkening back to an old principle of discernment...of evaluating an experience in relation to its fruits. More deeply, however, we are speaking of remaining attentive to the mystery and reality of God behind all phenomena, refusing to allow superficial appearances to distract us from this central concern. We do a disservice to ourselves and others when we allow our interest in the nature of a phenomenon to obscure the mysterious wonder of the very existence of that phenomenon.”

And also:

“In spiritual direction, however, there has to be an ongoing awareness that anything can happen; that the Holy Spirit is already affecting the person; and that one must participate in this work through careful discernment and support. here again, it is necessary to walk the fierce path of free will and dependence. We must always claim the freedom we have been given; to do otherwise would devalue our humanity. But at the same time, we will increasingly recognize the extreme inadequacy of personal will and knowledge in figuring out what life is or how we should live it. As we grow in wisdom, we also grow in the realization of our utter dependence upon the Lord in all things. it seems to me, then, that in its purest human form spiritual direction is a journey towards more freely and deeply choosing to surrender to God.”

24. Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer by Mark E. Thibodeaux

(Franciscan Media, 180pp. April 1, 2001)

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“This user-friendly book blends theory and practice, gently and concretely taking the reader through the first steps of contemplative prayer. Armchair Mystic begins with the necessary details of time and place to pray, then presents the maturation of the prayer life in four stages: Talking at God, Talking to God, Listening to God and Being With God. Each chapter begins with an Orientation and ends with a concluding summary. Step-by-step exercises throughout the book provide concrete examples of how to use the concepts discussed. Armchair Mystic will prove invaluable to individuals and small groups who are new to contemplative prayer, or who wish to deepen their experience of it,”

Micro Review: Easily accessible insights into the practice of contemplative prayer.

A few favorite quotations:

“This is what actually distinguishes a mystic from a novice pray-er. Mystics often have as many distractions as novices do, but the difference is in their perception of and their reaction to them….”

Chapter 13 “Why I’m Bored With God: Hints of an Explanation”

“There is a common strand in the images presented thus far. All of them imply that there is great value in self-sacrifice. The relationship images, in particular, seem to indicate that this sacrifice may be a necessary element of mature, intimate relationships. Perhaps this is what God is up to when he allows dryness in my prayer: God sets up a situation that allows me to make a sacrifice for our relationship, thereby strengthening the bond between us.”

P. 151

“Specifically, I define prayer as recognition of God, transformation by God and union with God.”

P. 159

“So then, when I pray I become attuned to the presence of God in my everyday life (recognition of God). I also begin to surrender all of my life to God’s lordship during prayer (transformation by God). Finally, when I pray I come into mystical union with God, a oneness not severed when I rise from my prayer time (union with God). These are the three most important qualities of prayer.

Note, however, that the three are really one and the same quality. The transformation that takes place in prayer is ultimately a transformation of perception. What is surrendered in this transformation - my lordship and my separateness from God - never really existed in the first place? They were only illusions and mirages, smoke and mirrors. God has always been God and has always carried me in his bosom (see Isaiah 40:11). From the moment of my creation, God and I have always been together in mystical oneness. I just didn’t know it until now.”

P. 162

“The Bible warns time and again against the fallacy that holds that I can be close to God without being close to God’s people. It condemns any sort of God-and-me spirituality that does not result in an outpouring of love toward others: (Is. 58:5-7).”

P. 168

“Any prayer life that does not make me an instrument of God's saving action in the world is an inauthentic one. Even cloistered monks, who live lives of solitude, do not view their vocation as being set apart from the world. Trappist contemplative Thomas Merton writes:

‘One of the worst illusions in the mystical life would be to try to find God by barricading yourself inside your own soul, shutting out all external reality by sheer concentration and will-power, cutting yourself off from the world and other men by stuffing yourself inside your own mind and closing the door like a turtle...We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them.’”

25. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (Modern Library Classics) by Bernard McGinn

(Modern Library, 592pp. December 12, 2006)

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“This clear and comprehensive anthology, culled from the vast corpus of Christian mystical literature by the renowned theologian and historian Bernard McGinn, presents nearly one hundred selections, from the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the third century to the work of twentieth-century mystics such as Thomas Merton.

Uniquely organized by subject rather than by author, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism explores how human life is transformed through the search for direct contact with God. Part one examines the preparation for encountering God through biblical interpretation and prayer; the second part focuses on the mystics’ actual encounters with God; and part three addresses the implications of the mystical life, showing how mystics have been received over time, and how they practice their faith through private contemplation and public actions.

In addition to his illuminating Introduction, Bernard McGinn provides accessible headnotes for each section, as well as numerous biographical sketches and a selected bibliography.”

Micro Review: Of all the required reading for my spiritual direction certification, the mystics challenge me the most. Their ardor and affection for the triune God reveals layers of 21st-century cynicism that cloud my ability to adore God.  For example this stunning exclamation from St. John of the Cross  

“O sweet burn!

O delicious wound!

O tender hand! O gentle touch

That savors of eternal life,

And pays every debt!

In slaying you have changed death into life” 

In Thomas Merton, I feel like I’ve found the most helpful guide in holding together the two ends of one rope - contemplation and obedience (or surrender).

“Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him who has no voice, and yet who speaks in everything that is, and who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of his. But we are words that are meant to respond to him, to answer to him, to echo him, and even in some way to contain him and signify him. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and re-sounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One. He answers himself in us and this answer is divine life, divine creativity, making all things new. We ourselves become his echo and his answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation he answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer.” ( Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

In Merton’s call to both hold closely our contemplative encounters with God and our desire to share the joy with everyone we meet, I heard a beautiful echo of what I believe to be God’s calling on my life:

“At the same time [the contemplative] most earnestly wants everybody else to share his peace and his joy. His contemplation gives him a new outlook on the world of men. He looks about him with a secret and tranquil surmise which he perhaps admits to no one; hoping to find in the faces of other men or to hear in their voices some sign of vocation and potentiality for the same deep happiness and wisdom. He finds himself speaking of God to the men in whom he hopes he has recognized the light of his own peace, the awakening of his own secret: or if he cannot speak to them, he writes for them, and his contemplative life is still imperfect without sharing, without companionship, without communion.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

Among the other highlights from reading this anthology, I appreciated learning the influence of John Cassian on the prayers we use in the daily offices (“O Lord, make haste to help us”) and his teaching emphasis on “puritas cordis” (purity of heart) and “oratio ignita” (fiery prayer). I’m always encouraged by Julian of Norwich, and in this reading it was hearing more about her teaching on the “motherhood of Jesus”. Julian of Norwich provided me with what I’d love to be my own eulogy: “I wanted to live so as to love God better and for longer, and therefore know and love him better in the bliss of heaven...Good Lord, may my ceasing to live be to your glory.” (p. 239)

Amen. May it be so!

26. The Spiritual Life: Four Broadcast Talks by Evelyn Underhill

(Martino Fine Books, 142pp. February 5, 2013 reprint of 1937 edition)

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“Evelyn Underhill was an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism. This book contains in an expanded form the four addresses on the Spiritual Life which were given by Underhill in 1936. The are published in response to numerous requests from listeners and in the hope that they will be found suitable for Lenten reading. The spiritual life is here considered, not as an intense form of piety peculiar to saints, but as the living heart of all religion, and therefore of vital concern to ordinary men and women. Its essence is held to consist in a growing communion with God, a growing cooperation with Him, inspiring and transforming every kind of action from the most routine to the most heroic. Essays are: What is the Spiritual Life The Spiritual Life as Communion with God The Spiritual Life as Co-operation with God Some Questions and Difficulties.”

Micro Review: I’ve been meaning to read more by Evelyn Underhill for a long time and was thankful for this opportunity. These transcripts from four of Underhill’s radio broadcasts pack much depth and mystery in concise paragraphs surrounded, aptly, by a lot of white space on each page. This is the perfect book to read and re-read devotionally for those who wish to grow closer to God within the paradox of His mystery and His invitation to intimacy.

Highly recommend!

27. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

(IVP Books, 352pp. November 19, 2015 reprint of 2005 edition)

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“In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook Adele Calhoun gives us directions for our continuing journey toward intimacy with Christ. While the word discipline may make us want to run and hide, the author shows how desires and discipline work together to lead us to the transformation we're longing for--the transformation only Christ can bring. Instead of just giving information about spiritual disciplines, this handbook is full of practical, accessible guidance that helps you actually practice them. With over 80,000 copies in print, this well-loved catalog of seventy-five disciplines has been revised throughout and expanded to include thirteen new disciplines along with a new preface by the author. Mothers, fathers, plumbers, nurses, students--we're all on a journey. And spiritual disciplines are for all of us who desire to know Christ deeply and be like him. Here is direction for our desire, leading us to the ultimate destination: more of Christ himself.”

Micro Review: Adele Ahlberg Calhoun is a Selah faculty member, and I had the privilege of hearing her teach during one of our residencies. The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook provides an index of spiritual disciplines from millenia of Christian practice and, in the process, gave all of us a rich gift. Calhoun orders 75 disciplines within the framework of the acronym WORSHIP:

  • Worship [Celebration, Gratitude, Holy Communion, Rule for Life, Sabbath, Visio Divina, Worship]

  • Open Myself to God [Contemplation, Examen, Iconography, Journaling, Pilgrimage, Practicing the Presence, Rest, Retreat, Self-Care, Simplicity, Slowing, Teachability, Unplugging]

  • Relinquish the False Self [Confession and Self-Examination, Detachment, Discernment, Mindfulness/Attentiveness, Secrecy, Silence, Sobriety, Solitude, Spiritual Direction, Submission, Waiting]

  • Share My Life With Others [Accountability Partner, Chastity, Community, Covenant Group, Discipling, Face-to-Face, Connection, Hospitality, Mentoring, Service, Small Group, Spiritual Friendship, Unity, Witness]

  • Hear God’s Word [Bible Study, Lectio Divina/Devotional Reading, Meditation, Memorization]

  • Incarnate the Love of Christ [Blessing Others/Encouragement, Care of the Earth, Compassion, Control of the Tongue, Forgiveness, Humility, Justice, Solidarity in Jesus’ Sufferings, Stewardship, Truth Telling]

  • Pray [Breath Prayer, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Conversational Prayer, Fasting, Fixed-Hour Prayer, Inner-Healing Prayer, Intercessory Prayer, Labryinth Prayer, Listening Prayer, Liturgical Prayer, Prayer of Lament, Prayer Partners, Praying Scripture, Prayer of Recollection, Prayer Walking, Welcoming Prayer,]

    Calhoun’s work to not only define the various practices but to order them in a way that orients us toward the entire goal of our spiritual journey - to worship God and enjoy Him forever - is a gift within a gift. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It should be a mandatory reference book for everyone who wishes to not only be a Christian, but a disciple of Jesus.

28. Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God (Transforming Resources) by Ruth Haley Barton

(IVP Books, 144 pp. September 18, 2018)

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Come away and rest awhile." Jesus invites us to be with him, offering our full and undivided attention to him. When we choose retreat we make a generous investment in our friendship with Christ. Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives which means we've gotten pretty good at giving God twenty minutes here and a half an hour there. And there's no question we are better for it! But we need more. Indeed, we long for more. In these pages Transforming Center founder and seasoned spiritual director, Ruth Haley Barton, gently and eloquently leads us into an exploration of retreat as a key practice that opens us to God. Based on her own practice and her experience leading hundreds of retreats for others, she will guide you in a very personal exploration of seven specific invitations contained within the general invitation to retreat. You will discover how to say yes to God's winsome invitation to greater freedom and surrender. There has never been a time when the invitation to retreat is so radical and so relevant, so needed and so welcome. It is not a luxury, but a necessity of the spiritual life.”

Micro Review: Many people I know interested in the work of spiritual formation cite Ruth Haley Barton frequently. I’m new to her work and enjoyed this book. While I didn’t need to be convinced of the renewing power of the spiritual discipline of retreat, I was grateful for the practical suggestions and itineraries she offers in this easy-to-read book.

29. Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling

(IVP Books, 180pp. July 14, 2017)

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"Who in the world am I?" The Enneagram is like a mirror, reflecting dimensions of ourselves that are sometimes hard to see. In this helpful guide, spiritual director and Enneagram teacher Alice Fryling offers an introduction to each number of the Enneagram and their respective triads. More than just helping us discern our number, this book relates the Enneagram to our spiritual journey, as a way to identify our gifts as well as our blind spots. With Scripture meditations and questions for reflection and discussion, Mirror for the Soul offers a new perspective on our unique temperament so that we might know and extend God's grace more fully. Knowledge of the Enneagram leads us into more authentic self-awareness, richer relationships, and deeper places in the soul where we can worship God in truth and grace.

Micro Review: I’d already read several of the books at the top of the Enneagram suggested reading list and while this accessible work from Alice Fryling probably wouldn’t be my first recommendation for an introduction to the Enneagram, it definitely would be what I recommend for those wanting a theologically and biblically-oriented viewpoint. Of the Enneagram books I’ve read written for the Christian reader, this might be my favorite because it provides a bit more substance and integrates some of the common language of Christianity with specific application points with the Enneagram.

I also appreciated the author’s value for honoring the mystery inherent to each of us as made in the image of a mysterious and always-revealing God even as we try to know ourselves in a deeper, God-honoring way.

For example:

“So how do we learn our number? This is another great puzzle. There are many online tests and in-book inventories, but often they give suspicious results. This is because it is so very difficult to uncover our blind spots. We respond to inventories with what we know about ourselves, which is often an incomplete picture. The Enneagram describes motivation rather than behavior, and most tests ask about behavior, or our answers reflect our behavior.”


“I have found that the Enneagram respects the observation that the soul is shy, like a wild animal. Parker Palmer says that ‘if we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for it to come out.’ Instead, we need to ‘walk quietly into the woods and sit silently’ until ‘out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.’ Palmer is not writing about the Enneagram, but this is a good reminder that we dare not crash through the woods of the Enneagram yelling for our soul to come out. The Enneagram is much more likely to give us ‘glimpses’ into our souls. The process may be painful, but it is gentle.”

30. Self to Lose - Self to Find: A Biblical Approach to the 9 Enneagram Types by Marilyn Vancil

(Redemption Press, 208pp. June 3, 2016)

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“Self to Lose-Self to Find examines the invitation of Jesus to lose yourself in order to find your true self, and presents the personality system known as the Enneagram within this biblical framework. It will guide you toward liberating self-awareness by detailing nine distinct personality patterns, each with particular gifts and challenges. By learning about your type, you will: -Embrace the truth about your God-given identity -Uncover your deeper motivations, longings, and ways of suffering -Discern between the self to lose and the self Jesus invites you to find -Enhance your relationships by appreciating others more -Own-up to what keeps you from possessing the abundant life Jesus offers. Marilyn Vancil, a spiritual director and certified Enneagram professional, weaves three threads - the biblical story, the Enneagram wisdom, and real-life experiences - into this compelling and essential resource for those who long for a more free and fruitful life. Dr. David Daniels, co-author of The Essential Enneagram, describes this book as "a thoughtful and ground-breaking analysis of the Enneagram system and its valuable contribution to the work of development in the Christian life.”

Micro Review: Another Christian perspective on the Enneagram that I found helpful in more of a devotional than academic sense.

My favorite description from the author for the Enneagram Type 5 (me!):

“Type Fives will experience more generosity, community, and trust when they release their insatiable quest for the knowledge they believe will protect and save them from being swallowed up by a demanding world. They will no longer fear being depleted, but will experience a new freedom to give away what they have. They will offer their gifts of time, energy, and talent with faith in a God who is generous and will meet their needs. In this way, they will become an available resource so people can access their wisdom and expertise.

Fives will become less driven to be self-sufficient and will seek out and enjoy the companionship of others with whom they can share their lives and learn together. Their need for time alone will change from a survival tactic to a desire to contemplate and connect with their own heart and God’s presence. When they shift their focus from trying to make sense of things, they allow for mystery and the unknown. Spiritual truths will be experienced as living realities rather than examined as abstract concepts. Their divine gift of inner knowing will equip them to listen for the nudging of God’s Spirit and bring their gifts of perception and insight forward to help others know and experience His deeper truths and wisdom.”

31. What's Your God Language?: Connecting with God Through Your Unique Spiritual Temperament (Nine Spiritual Temperaments--How Knowing Yours Can Help You) by Myra Perrine

(Tyndale Momentum, 229pp. August 1, 2007)

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“In What's Your God Language? Myra Perrine describes nine types of spiritual temperaments and suggests disciplines and faith expressions that fit best with each unique temperament (or blend of temperaments). Drawing on her doctoral research that built on the work of Gary Thomas and others, Perrine calls readers to stop fighting the way God wired them and to experience a deeper intimacy with Christ by embracing their unique "spiritual circuitry."

  • In-depth analysis of nine categories of spiritual temperaments

  • Spiritual temperament assessment tool for assessing one's individual temperament

  • Biblically supported and thoroughly researched

  • Written in a friendly, anecdotal style

  • Foreword by Gary Thomas

  • Web site with additional intermediate and advanced exercises

The 9 Languages:

  • The Activist

  • The Ascetic

  • The Caregiver

  • The Contemplative

  • The Enthusiast

  • The Intellectual

  • The Naturalist

  • The Sensate

  • The Traditionalist

Micro Review: Full disclosure: This is the final book I read for my certification and I needed to kind of skim through it. While I’m always grateful for vocabulary to help us know ourselves in the light of God’s creation of us as humans, I found the construct distracting to the work I was already doing learning the language of the Enneagram. I’d especially recommend this book for those who don’t find the Enneagram helpful in their spiritual journey, but wish to understand the abundance of unique expressions Christ’s followers embody in pursuit of knowing and enjoying life with God.

Books I read for spiritual direction certification that I’ve shared previously:

Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2018 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!  

What are you reading these days? 


p.s. This post includes affiliate links in this post because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

What I Read January - June, part 1 [from the book pile 2019]

Oh goodness, how have six+ months gone by without a reading update?!? Life’s been a bit upside down lately, and I’m especially grateful for the companionship of good books. Hope you enjoy the micro reviews + publisher blurbs! Let me know if you add anything from this list to your book pile!

Sharing books from my Madeleine L’Engle collection at our reading group this spring.

Sharing books from my Madeleine L’Engle collection at our reading group this spring.

You can see my 2018 reading list here. | You can see all my reading lists since 2006 here.

One other note: A couple years ago I began using Amazon affiliate links as a way to bring in some pocket change from the books I share on the blog. I was challenged by an independent bookseller to reconsider this strategy as Amazon has a horrible reputation in its dealings with authors and other members of the book industry. I want to champion local business and humane working relationships and so I've included an IndieBound link that will direct you to purchase any of the following books from an independent bookseller near you. I've also included the order link for one of my new favorite booksellers, Hearts and Minds Books.  Using the link I've provided you can order any book through, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. They even offer the option to receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check! Brian and I've been delighted with the generous attention we've received from owners Byron and Beth Borger. We feel like we've made new friends! (I also highly recommend subscribing to Byron's passionately instructive and prolific Booknotes posts.)


1. Children of God: A Novel (The Sparrow Series)
By Mary Doria Russell (Fawcett Books, 1999. 438 pages)

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"The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future.

Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.

Strikingly original, richly plotted, replete with memorable characters and filled with humanity and humor, Children of God is an unforgettable and uplifting novel that is a potent successor to The Sparrow and a startlingly imaginative adventure for newcomers to Mary Doria Russell’s special literary magic.”

Micro Review: The first book in this two-part series, The Sparrow, was one of the best books I read in 2014, ending up on my top 15 life-changing books since I started keeping track on this blog in 2008. I’d heard that the follow-up, Children of God, was generally good but not enjoyed quite as much by fans of The Sparrow, and I’d agree with that consensus. The first book just about wrecked me -- in mostly good ways. Since it falls in the category of Sci-Fi, I'd probably not have picked it up on my own. But some dear friends shared how much they'd loved the story of -- well, a Jesuit priest in outer space. With only a little bit of experience reading science fiction, I've quickly learned that the power of the genre -- for me -- is the way a well-told story of an imaginary land and its inhabitants can help me reframe the powerful drama of my own land and species in the most surprising, touching ways. This was the case for me reading about the brave team of space explorers hoping to give and receive love on the planet Rakhat -- for some, even the love of the Gospel of Christ. The devastating results of offering pure, but misunderstood, love mirrors all the great tragedies we know since the beginning of man. And the beginning of my very own life on Earth. Children of God split the storyline between Earth and Rakhat and I found that the Rakhat story more compelling. Emilio Sandoz lost a little bit of his shine for me as he tries to recover from trauma and re-enter regular relationships on earth. I understood the trauma, but struggled more with his romantic choices and the results of his forced participation in a Rakhat rescue. The story arc was still compelling and one of the only books I’ve read that I can authentically attribute the over-used descriptor of “spellbinding.”

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read either of Mary Doria' Russell’s Sparrow books! How do you feel about them?

2. This Must Be the Place: A Novel
By Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf, 2016. 400 pages)

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"An irresistible love story, an unforgettable family. Best-selling author Maggie O’Farrell captures an extraordinary marriage with insight and laugh-out-loud humor in what Richard Russo calls “her breakout book.” Perfect for readers of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Claudette was once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema before she staged her own disappearance and retreated to blissful seclusion in an Irish farmhouse.

But the life Daniel and Claudette have so carefully constructed is about to be disrupted by an unexpected discovery about a woman Daniel lost touch with twenty years ago. This revelation will send him off-course, far away from wife, children, and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?”

Micro Review:

I first heard about this title on a One Great Book podcast with Modern Mrs. Darcy: Volume 1, Book 8 - “if you have a place in your heart and on your shelves for inventive, emotionally resonant literary fiction, that sometimes flouts convention but does it with purpose, whose characters you might love not in spite of, but because of, their flaws, This Must Be the Place may be the next great book you’re looking for.”

This was an enjoyable read with interesting characters, easy-to-follow timeline shifts in the narrative arc, and a satisfactory plot ending. My main disappointment is that while a large portion of the book was set in Ireland, we didn’t get much of a “feel” for the place outside of a few mentions here and there. If Ireland is a setting I want to FEEL IT!


3. The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 3)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 320 pages)

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"Welcome to Three Pines, where the cruelest month is about to deliver on its threat.
It's spring in the tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .
When some villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a séance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil---until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?
Brilliant, compassionate Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to investigate, in a case that will force him to face his own ghosts as well as those of a seemingly idyllic town where relationships are far more dangerous than they seem.”

Micro Review: This series has been a quiet little luxury during some difficult days. I read the books kind of like I eat a bowl of popcorn - mostly light and airy with an occasional kernel of buttery goodness. It’s the kind of series I can pick up whenever I need to just read without much brain work but still appreciate the redemptive story arc.

4. A Rule Against Murder: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 4)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 336 pages)

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"What happened here last night isn't allowed," said Madame Dubois.
It was such an extraordinary thing to say it stopped the ravenous Inspector Beauvoir from taking another bite of his roast beef on baguette.

"You have a rule against murder?" he asked.

"I do. When my husband and I bought the Bellechasse we made a pact....Everything that stepped foot on this land would be safe."

It is the height of summer, and Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are celebrating their wedding anniversary at Manoir Bellechasse, an isolated, luxurious inn not far from the village of Three Pines. But they're not alone. The Finney family—rich, cultured, and respectable—has also arrived for a celebration of their own.

The beautiful Manoir Bellechasse might be surrounded by nature, but there is something unnatural looming. As the heat rises and the humidity closes in, some surprising guests turn up at the family reunion, and a terrible summer storm leaves behind a dead body. It is up to Chief Inspector Gamache to unearth secrets long buried and hatreds hidden behind polite smiles. The chase takes him to Three Pines, into the dark corners of his own life, and finally to a harrowing climax.”

Micro Review: See above.

5. The Brutal Telling: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 5)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2017. 400 pages)

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"The wise and beleaguered Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to Three Pines The Brutal Telling, the fifth book in Louise Penny's #1 New York Times bestselling series.

Chaos is coming, old son. 

With those words the peace of Three Pines is shattered. Everybody goes to Olivier's Bistro—including a stranger whose murdered body is found on the floor. When Chief Inspector Gamache is called to investigate, he is dismayed to discover that Olivier's story is full of holes. Why are his fingerprints all over the cabin that's uncovered deep in the wilderness, with priceless antiques and the dead man's blood? And what other secrets and layers of lies are buried in the seemingly idyllic village?

Gamache follows a trail of clues and treasures—from first editions of Charlotte's Web and Jane Eyre to a spiderweb with a word mysteriously woven in it—into the woods and across the continent, before returning to Three Pines to confront the truth and the final, brutal telling.”

Micro Review: See above. I’ll add that I found the mystery angle of this story especially compelling.

6. Bury Your Dead: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 6)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 400 pages)

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"It is Winter Carnival in Quebec City, bitterly cold and surpassingly beautiful. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has come not to join the revels but to recover from an investigation gone hauntingly wrong. But violent death is inescapable, even in the apparent sanctuary of the Literary and Historical Society--where an obsessive historian's quest for the remains of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, ends in murder. Could a secret buried with Champlain for nearly four hundred years be so dreadful that someone would kill to protect it?

Meanwhile, Gamache is receiving disquieting letters from the village of Three Pines, where beloved Bistro owner Olivier was recently convicted of murder. "It doesn't make sense," Olivier's partner writes every day. "He didn't do it, you know."

As past and present collide in this astonishing novel, Gamache must relive a terrible event from his own past before he can begin to bury his dead.”

Micro Review: See above. I’ll add that I loved the opportunity to get out of the quirky, but loveable Three Pines community into the rich, historical setting of Quebec. Montreal is totally on our travel bucket list! I also appreciated the way the mysteries included the current crime and a revisit to an old, somewhat unresolved crime from a previous book.

Short Stories

7. Strange Pilgrims
By Gabriel García Márquez (Convergent Books, 2016. 224 pages)

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"In Barcelona, an aging Brazilian prostitute trains her dog to weep at the grave she has chosen for herself. In Vienna, a woman parlays her gift for seeing the future into a fortunetelling position with a wealthy family. In Geneva, an ambulance driver and his wife take in the lonely, apparently dying ex-President of a Caribbean country, only to discover that his political ambition is very much intact.

In these twelve masterly stories about the lives of Latin Americans in Europe, García Márquez conveys the peculiar amalgam of melancholy, tenacity, sorrow, and aspiration that is the émigré experience.”

Micro Review: My friend Ryan loaned me this book with the invitation to try reading Gabriel García Márquez again after I gave up on his acclaimed One Hundred Years of Solitude which I gave up on pretty quickly. He was right. The short story format was a better genre to get to know the author and I waded through them like a walk on the seashore - refreshing, beautiful, and occasionally, mesmerizing. I think more than anything plot-driven, I found the author’s ability to describe settings and characters in story after story affecting me like wave after wave (twelve stories in all) of sharp but alluring prose.

As an example, I could read this character description over and over just for the hypnotic quality of the combination of words (and this is the translation!):

“She was beautiful and lithe, with soft skin the color of bread and eyes like green almonds, and she had straight black hair that reached to her shoulders, and an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean. She was dressed with subtle taste: a lynx jacket, a raw silk blouse with very delicate flowers, natural linen trousers, and shoes with a narrow stripe the color of bougainvillea. 'This is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen,' I thought, when I saw her pass by with the stealthy stride of a lioness, while I waited in the check-in line at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for the plane to New York. ”
- Gabriel García Márquez, Strange Pilgrims

Apostles Reads Selections

8. Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
By Madeleine L’Engle (Convergent Books, 2016. 224 pages)

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"In this classic book, Madeleine L'Engle addresses the questions, What does it mean to be a Christian artist? and What is the relationship between faith and art? Through L'Engle's beautiful and insightful essay, readers will find themselves called to what the author views as the prime tasks of an artist: to listen, to remain aware, and to respond to creation through one's own art.”

Micro Review: I re-read this book with our church’s reading group for Epiphany and loved it every bit as much the second (third?) time around. The theme of invisible being made visible in the everyday world is perfect for Epiphany when we read through the accounts of Jesus’ being revealed as God in some of the most famous Gospel encounters.

It’s the perfect book to read with friends interested in the ways art and artists tell the story of truth, goodness, and beauty in this world.

9. Hinds’ Feet On High Places: An Engaging Visual Journey
By Hannah Hurnard, Illustrated By Jill de Haan and Rachel McNaughton (Tyndale House Publishers, 2017. 160 pages)

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"Journey with Much-Afraid to new heights of love, joy, and victory. For the first time, this beloved Christian allegory is a mixed-media special edition complete with charming watercolor paintings, antique tinted photography, meditative hand-lettered Scripture, journaling and doodling space, and designs to color. As you read and connect with the story of Much-Afraid and her trials, the pages of this book become a canvas on which to chronicle your own story, struggles, and personal triumphs.

Hinds' Feet on High Places, with more than 2,000,000 copies sold, is a story of endurance, persistence, and reliance on God. This book has inspired millions of people to become sure-footed in their faith even when facing the rockiest of life's terrain. The story of Much-Afraid is based on Psalm 18:33: "He makes me as surefooted as a deer, enabling me to stand on mountain heights."

The complete Hinds' Feet story is accented by 80 full-color paintings, photography, and hand-lettered Scripture.”

Micro Review: We read this beloved Christian allegory with our church’s reading group for Lent this year. I selected this beautiful mixed-media special edition complete with charming watercolor paintings, antique tinted photography, meditative hand-lettered Scripture, journaling and doodling space, and designs to color. I’ve lost track of the number of times since Easter that I’ve thought back to Much-Afraid’s challenging journey to her new identity of Grace and Glory. I’ll return to this devotional year after year.

Spirituality / Non-Fiction

10. Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace
By Christie Purifoy (Zondervan, 2019. 224 pages)

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"Images of comfortable kitchens and flower-filled gardens stir something deep within us--we instinctively long for home. In a world of chaos and conflict, we want a place of comfort and peace.

In Placemaker, Christie Purifoy invites us to notice our soul's desire for beauty, our need to create and to be created again and again. As she reflects on the joys and sorrows of two decades as a placemaker and her recent years living in and restoring a Pennsylvania farmhouse, Christie shows us that we are all gardeners. No matter our vocation, we spend much of our lives tending, keeping, and caring. In each act of creation, we reflect the image of God. In each moment of making beauty, we realize that beauty is a mystery to receive.

Weaving together her family's journey with stories of botanical marvels and the histories of the flawed yet inspiring placemakers who shaped the land generations ago, Christie calls us to cultivate orchards and communities, to clap our hands along with the trees of the fields. Placemaker is a timely yet timeless reminder that the cultivation of good and beautiful places is not a retreat from the real world but a holy pursuit of a world that is more real than we know. A call to tend the soul, the land, and the places we share with one another. A reminder that we are always headed home.”

Micro Review: I was able to review Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace by Christie Purifoy for Englewood Review of Books
A Flouring Tree, A Feature Review:

Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, encourages writers to remember Thoreau’s salient recommendation: “Circle round and round your life… Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” If it’s possible to gnaw a bone elegantly, Christie Purifoy does just that in her newly-released second book, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace. Like her debut, Roots & Sky, Purifoy continues to circle round and round the subject of finding, losing, and making home.

With regard to Thoreau, a more apt metaphor Placemaker might be sitting under the shade of a tree we didn’t plant. Purifoy provides a virtual grove of shade trees gathered from the landscapes of the places she’s lived throughout her life. Not unlike Annie Dillard (or Thoreau) in her diligence to wring wonder from the natural world, Christie Purifoy offers readers glimpses of the universe’s deepest truth, goodness, and beauty from the fauna and flora we encounter in the ordinary places we make our homes.”

You can read the rest of my review describing why I loved this book and some of the trees in my own story here.

11. The Sabbath (FSG Classics)
By Abraham Joshua Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pages)

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"Elegant, passionate, and filled with the love of God's creation, Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath has been hailed as a classic of Jewish spirituality ever since its original publication-and has been read by thousands of people seeking meaning in modern life. In this brief yet profound meditation on the meaning of the Seventh Day, Heschel introduced the idea of an "architecture of holiness" that appears not in space but in time Judaism, he argues, is a religion of time: it finds meaning not in space and the material things that fill it but in time and the eternity that imbues it, so that "the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals."

Micro Review: This was a re-read for me in order to follow along with Englewood Review of Books’ Lenten online reading group. I facilitated one of the sessions. You can see my questions for Chapters 7-9 here.

Here’s an excerpt from my reflection following the first time I read the book (back in 2015):

Even though I'd always meant to read it because Abraham Joshua Heschel is quoted by almost every author I've ever read (usually from this book), I'll admit it was seeing an image of the cover art that finally got me to purchase the book.  The prints of wood engravings by Ilya Schor on the cover and at the beginning of each chapter provide an elegance to Heschel's graceful words about the beauty of Sabbath time to Jewish faith and life.  Heschel's words are poetic (at times, even, mythical) which I found captivating enough, but especially so when paired with his daughter's prologue to the book which explained in more day-to-day (week-to-week, rather) terms of what a Sabbath practice looked like in her father's home.


Christian Perspective / Social Issues

12. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness
By Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Foreword by Justin Welby (Brazos Press, 2015. 240 pages)

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"Where is God in the suffering of a mentally ill person? What happens to the soul when the mind is ill? How are Christians to respond to mental illness? In this brave and compassionate book, theologian and priest Kathryn Greene-McCreight confronts these difficult questions raised by her own mental illness--bipolar disorder. With brutal honesty, she tackles often avoided topics such as suicide, mental hospitals, and electroconvulsive therapy. Greene-McCreight offers the reader everything from poignant and raw glimpses into the mind of a mentally ill person to practical and forthright advice for their friends, family, and clergy.

The first edition has been recognized as one of the finest books on the subject. This thoroughly revised edition incorporates updated research and adds anecdotal and pastoral commentary. It also includes a new foreword by the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a new afterword by the author.”

Micro Review: We’re walking with a loved one suffering from severe depression. Friends loaned us Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s book and I’d recommend it to everyone wanting to be a good gift to mental illness. May our tribe increase.

13. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible
By M. Daniel Carroll R. (Brazos Press, 2013. 170 pages)

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"Immigration is one of the most pressing issues on the national agenda. In this accessible book, an internationally recognized immigration expert helps readers think biblically about this divisive issue, offering accessible, nuanced, and sympathetic guidance for the church. As both a Guatemalan and an American, the author is able to empathize with both sides of the struggle and argues that each side has much to learn.

This updated and revised edition reflects changes from the past five years, responds to criticisms of the first edition, and expands sections that have raised questions for readers. It includes a foreword by Samuel Rodriguez and an afterword by Ronald Sider. This timely, clear, and compassionate resource will benefit all Christians who are thinking through the immigration issue..”

Micro Review: We had the privilege of hearing Danny Carroll speak at our diocesan convention last autumn on the biblical lens for immigration. Put this at the top of your reading and listening lists. You can see each of his three plenary talks from the weekend here. If you aren’t able to read the book right away, you can also hear the author in this series of brief videos.

The entire thread weaving through all of Scripture places priority on the foreigner and stranger. To think Christianly about immigration is actually pretty plain. Policies are complex and require good governance. The posture of anyone who lives within the Kingdom of Christ toward immigrants is straightforward. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Plough Book Reviews

14. Jean Vanier: Portrait of A Free Man
By Anne-Sophie Constant, Translated By Allen Page (Plough Publishing House, August 2019. 250 pages)

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"The life of Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, who changed the way the world views disability

It’s a crazy story. In August 1964 a thirty-six-year-old Canadian from a famous family – one who has already joined the navy during war at age thirteen, become an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto -- takes up residence in a little house he just bought in the village of Trosly, France, with two mentally disabled men he has removed from a care home. The house, which he calls l’Arche (the Ark), has neither water nor electricity. His plan? None. He is just convinced he has to do it, touched by the silent cry of these men shut up in the gloomy, violent institution where he found them. His example is contagious; within months the community has grown to over fifty.

Jean Vanier is known and loved around the world for having created L'Arche, those unique communities of people with disabilities and their volunteer caregivers in more than one hundred and fifty sites on five continents. But Vanier is also a philosopher, a spiritual master who touches believers and nonbelievers alike, a tireless messenger of peace and ecumenism, and an adventurer with life full of twists and turns. Anne-Sophie Constant's literary biography paints a rare portrait of this extraordinary man and the events and influences that shaped his destiny.

“The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints, opinions, and prejudices; from intellectual, religious or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion. . . . Jean Vanier has transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of mentally disabled people. And he has transformed the understanding of thousands of people regarding the disabilities of their own children and of people with disabilities. Where we see only failure, disgrace, impossibility, limit, weakness, ugliness, and suffering, Jean Vanier sees beauty. And he knows how to open the eyes of others to see it..”

Micro Review: It’s a curious thing about us humans that we often delay our acquaintanceship with the work of remarkable humans until they die. For that reason, this August may be perfect timing for this new release from Plough Publishing House as the world mourns the loss of Jean Vanier, age 90, in May. For those like me who have circled around the writing and wisdom of the man who traded in a life of the political and academic elite to found L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. I find these kinds of biographies that provide background and context for the lives of those who so deeply influence the world helpful as a launch into the primary sources written by the figures themselves. I’m looking forward to reading deeply through Vanier’s writing and grateful to Anne-Sophie Constant and Plough for inviting me into the circle of those who knew the man firsthand.

More than anything I want to, in the words of the Apostle Paul, put on Jean Vanier as he put on Christ. I want to become more fully human in the process of companioning others to do the same. Thanks to this portrait of Vanier’s life I will always imagine the Kingdom of Christ like the crowd who gathered for L’Arche’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration. Here’s the description from the book’s epilogue:

“[The festival} took place on September 27 [2014]. To the surprise of the passersby, there was a gigantic parade of seven thousand people marching from the Hôtel de Ville to the Place de la République. The crowd shouted, sang, and danced in the streets as colorful balloons floated into the air. “What are you demonstrating against?” people asked. “Against nothing! We’re celebrating! Come dance and eat cake with us.”… So they danced on the Place de la République - marchers, wheelchairs, and pedestrians all mixed together.”

May each protest I offer against all that is inhuman and unlove have the air of the celebration that the Kingdom is here and now and through what Vanier described as the “sacrament of the poor” can be lived in the good company of Jesus who invites us all, like little children, into the belovedness of God.

15. At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
By Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, Edited by Inge Jens, Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn (Plough Publishing House, 2017. 381 pages)

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"Personal letters and diaries provide an intimate view into the hearts and minds of a brother and sister who became martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II.

Idealistic, serious, and sensible, Hans and Sophie Scholl joined the Hitler Youth with youthful and romantic enthusiasm. But as Hitler’s grip throttled Germany and Nazi atrocities mounted, Hans and Sophie emerged from their adolescence with the conviction that at all costs they must raise their voices against the murderous Nazi regime.

In May of 1942, with Germany still winning the war, an improbable little band of students at Munich University began distributing the leaflets of the White Rose. In the very city where the Nazis got their start, they demanded resistance to Germany’s war efforts and confronted their readers with what they had learned of Hitler’s “final solution”: “Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of humankind, a crime that has no counterpart in human history.”

These broadsides were secretly drafted and printed in a Munich basement by Hans Scholl, by now a young medical student and military conscript, and a handful of young co-conspirators that included his twenty-one-year-old sister Sophie. The leaflets placed the Scholls and their friends in mortal danger, and it wasn’t long before they were captured and executed.

As their letters and diaries reveal, the Scholls were not primarily motivated by political beliefs, but rather came to their convictions through personal spiritual search that eventually led them to sacrifice their lives for what they believed was right. Interwoven with commentary on the progress of Hitler’s campaign, the letters and diary entries range from veiled messages about the course of a war they wanted their country to lose, to descriptions of hikes and skiing trips and meditations on Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, and Verlaine; from entreaties to their parents for books and sweets hard to get in wartime, to deeply humbled and troubled entreaties to God for an understanding of the presence of such great evil in the world. There are alarms when Hans is taken into military custody, when their father is jailed, and when their friends are wounded on the eastern front. But throughout―even to the end, when the Scholls’ sense of peril is most oppressive―there appear in their writings spontaneous outbursts of joy and gratitude for the gifts of nature, music, poetry, and art. In the midst of evil and degradation, theirs is a celebration of the spiritual and the humane.

Illustrated with photographs of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends and co-conspirators..”

Micro Review: I’d never heard of Hans and Sophie Scholl or the White Rose before receiving this book from Plough Publishing. In one way I’m glad to be just learning their story now against the backdrop or our current political and cultural climate. I’m beginning to understand that the one-dimensional understanding of anyone loyal to Hitler’s Germany has created massive blind spots and harmful ignorance in our belief that we’re living on the “right side of history.” May God raise up many more Hans and Sophie Scholls in our day. May we, like these young, idealists be willing as their peer in the resistance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, allow all our wish-dreams to be shattered by Jesus.

And even then, in our zeal for Christ’s Kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven, may we like Sophie Scholl never lose sight of the beauty of our Father’s world who wrote during her final autumn - a few months before her execution by the Nazi government ruling her beloved Germany:

“Now I’m delighting once more in the last rays of the sun and marveling at the incredible beauty of all that wasn’t created by man: the red dahlias beside the white garden gate, the tall, solemn fir trees, the tremulous, gold-draped birches whose gleaming trunks stand out against all the green and russet foliage, and the golden sunshine that intensifies the colors of each individual object, unlike the blazing summer sun, which overpowers anything else that tries to stir. It’s all so wonderfully beautiful here that I’ve no idea what kind of emotion my speechless heart should develop for it, because it’s too immature to take pure pleasure in it. It merely marvels and contents itself with wonder and enchantment - isn’t it mysterious - and frightening, too, when one doesn’t know the reason - that everything should be so beautiful in spite of the terrible things that are happening? My sheer delight in all things beautiful has been invaded by a great unknown, an inkling of the creator whom his creatures glorify with their beauty. - That’s why mane alone can be ugly, because he has the free will to disassociate himself from this song of praise. Nowadays one is often tempted to believe that he’ll drown the song with gunfire and curses and blasphemy. But it dawned on me last spring that he can’t, and I’ll try to take the winning side.”

Read this book with a side of humble curiosity and then pass it on.

16. The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (The Gospel in Great Writers)
By Gerard Manley Hopkins and Margaret R. Ellsberg, Foreword by Dana Gioia (Plough Publishing House, 2017. 268 pages)

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"How did a Catholic priest who died a failure become one of the world’s greatest poets? Discover in his own words the struggle for faith that gave birth to some of the best spiritual poetry of all time.

Gerard Manley Hopkins deserves his place among the greatest poets in the English language. He ranks seventh among the most frequently reprinted English-language poets, surpassed only by Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, and Wordsworth.

Yet when the English Jesuit priest died of typhoid fever at age forty-four, he considered his life a failure. He never would have suspected that his poems, which would not be published for another twenty-nine years, would eventually change the course of modern poetry and influence such poets as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Geoffrey Hill, and Seamus Heaney. Like his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Hopkins revolutionized poetic language.

And yet we love Hopkins not only for his literary genius but for the hard-won faith that finds expression in his verse. Who else has captured the thunderous voice of God and the grandeur of his creation on the written page as Hopkins has? Seamlessly weaving together selections from Hopkins’s poems, letters, journals, and sermons, Peggy Ellsberg lets the poet tell the story of a life-long struggle with faith that gave birth to some of the best poetry of all time. Even readers who spurn religious language will find in Hopkins a refreshing, liberating way to see God’s hand at work in the world.”

Micro Review: I re-read this insightful book for a Selah assignment this spring to study a Christian mystic. I was delighted to discover that one of my favorites, Gerard Manley Hopkins, included in a list of English mystic poets on God in nature.

Here’s my mini-review from my first read back in 2017:

I'm grateful for any opportunity I have to learn an artist through his life story. There are drawbacks, of course. Sometimes it's hard to look a hero in the proverbial eye through their letters and journal entries. It's hard to hear the doubt, insecurity, and suffering of the people who've introduced so much beauty into the world. Oh my goodness, Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems are beautiful. And his suffering was real. My favorite part of the book is still the poems, which I guess I could read in his collected works, but I've learned that I often prefer to read and study artists' work within the context of their everyday lives. 

Here's my all-time favorite Hopkins line from The Wreck of the Deutschland: "Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east".

Yes, let it be so.

Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2018 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

Linking up with another good reading resource: Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!  

What are you reading these days? 


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