United Under the Same Spirit: Ecumenical Reading

Ecumenism in spiritual book publishing is alive and well. We are increasingly presented with spiritual reading intended for all ChristiansCatholic, Protestant and Orthodox. If there is any truth to the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (our way of believing mirrors our way of praying), one is tempted to assert that as far as personal Christian spiritual practices are concerned, the division between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox is over. Indeed, it is heartening to observe how the Spirit continues to unite all Christians around our common spiritual heritage.

The Journey Toward God: In the Footsteps of the Great Spiritual WritersCatholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, by Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., with Kevin Perrotta (Servant Publications, 263p, $12.99, paperback original), is an anthology of classical and contemporary texts on the Christian spiritual journey excerpted from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox spiritual traditions. Groeschel, a Catholic monk and director of the Office of Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York, acknowledges his friend Kevin Perrotta, a fellow author and editor without whom a long standing goal of my life would not have been achieved.

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The preface notes that the current book correlates with Groeschel’s well-known previous work on the Christian spiritual path. I have largely followed the outline of development called the teaching of the Three Ways, which I attempted to partially correlate with the developmental psychology in my book Spiritual Passages (Crossroad, 1982). The excerpts in Part I are organized within the familiar topics of the Christian spiritual pathconversion, purification, the illuminative way, the dark night, the unitive way. Part II gathers texts under four topicsgrief and contradiction, religious experience, coming closer to God and devotion. In addition to illustrating Spiritual Passages, I found Journey valuable as a meditation book, its familiar and much loved texts providing inspiration for daily prayer.

Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines, edited by Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin (HarperSanFrancisco, 373p, $16, paperback original) is a collection of a different sort and fits better into the category of spiritual reading than a meditation book. Foster, a Protestant and founder of the international renewal movement Renovare, previously published Celebration of Discipline (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), a treatise on what he calls the twelve spiritual disciplines. With his co-editor Griffin, a broadcast producer and writer and a convert to Catholicism, he seeks to provide a year’s worth of reading and reflection (52 selections) on his disciplinesinward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, study; outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, service; corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, celebration.

The selections are arranged around texts taken from classical and current authors within Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. British authors are favored (a number of them were unknown to me). Each text is preceded by an introduction and followed by a related Bible selection, discussion questions for groups, exercises for individuals and groups, reflections on the texts and a bibliography. Among the better known authors included are: Thomas More, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, John Henry Newman, Augustine, William Law, Martin Luther, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, John Main, John Milton, Meister Eckhart, Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Underhill, Ignatius Loyola and Martin Luther King Jr. The book is ideal for Christian discussion groups desiring exposure to the three major Christian spiritual traditions as found in their classic and contemporary authors.

Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime (Doubleday, 646p, $27.50, hardcover) is the second of three volumes intended to provide an adaptation of the Benedictine office of hours suitable for contemporary Christians who want to keep the tradition of fixed-hour prayer but cannot use the lengthy Benedictine office. (Already published is Prayers for Summertime; the final volume will be Prayers for Springtime.) Tickle, an Episcopalian, draws upon the Divine Office in the Book of Common Prayer and the guidelines of the Episcopal Church in creating her adaptation, the first major literary and liturgical reworking of the sixth-century Benedictine Rule of fixed-hour prayer.

The current volume provides three sets of readingsThe Morning Office, The Midday Office, The Vespers Officefor each day from Oct. 1 through January, including a single week each of the Compline Office for Advent, Christmas and January. Each office is brief, approximately a page and a half, and arranged in a traditional format: psalm, refrain, hymn, prayer and Scripture. Tickle, a well-known author and reporter on religion, is currently the contributing editor in religion for the Publishers Weekly journal. The hardcover book, beautifully printed and bound and requiring no page-flipping during the offices, is presented by an Episcopalian deeply committed to our common Christian heritage of the Divine Hours: Asking me why I keep the Offices is like asking me why I go to church. One, granted, is a place of bricks and mortar, but the other is a chapel of the heart, as powerful a place, albeit one of the spirit. The Offices open to me four times a day and call me to remember who owns time and why it is, as a part of creation.

James Finley’s opening paragraphs sound the main intention of The Contemplative Heart (Sorin Books, 224p, $13.95, paperback original): I hope and trust that these reflections are true to the spirit of Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, Eihei Dogen, and the other sources of contemplative wisdom quoted and referred to in these pages. Each is among the formative influences that have contributed to the vision expressed and explored in this primer of contemplative living. Having lived as a Trappist monk in Gethsemani for five years, Finley left the monastery intending to continue the contemplative way of life in the world. While at Gethsemani, he was deeply affected by the spiritual vision of Thomas Merton. Merton’s vision, it should be recalled, was greatly enriched by the apophatic contemplative tradition as embodied by Meister Eckhart and Zen Buddhism. Finley invites us to move beyond the Christian ecumenical spiritual dialogue toward a genuine inter-religious dialogue.

In The Contemplative Heart Finley, now a clinical psychologist and spiritual writer, reflects on his nearly 30 years of applying the contemplative vision to his own life. He sketches three interconnected principles underlying his philosophy of contemplative living: 1) the divinity of what just is; 2) our ignorance of the divinity of what just is; and 3) the path of our homecoming or contemplative transformation. Contemplative living is nothing other than living fully in the present by developing an attitude of mindfulness toward our daily tasks and by recognizing whatever distracts us from this mindfulness. How do we reach this state of living fully in the present? Through meditation, so Finley’s book devotes some 80 pages to how to meditate or, more precisely, to techniques for centering prayer and mantra prayerimageless prayer in which we are held to God by God without the use of thoughts or images. The following excerpt catches the goal of his prayer method:

Ultimately we are not created by God to think about God, but rather are created by God for God beyond all ideas of God. Therefore no matter how profound, lofty, and moving a thought about God arising in meditation might be, we are to neither cling to nor reject it, but rather simply be aware of it, allowing it to arise, endure and pass away. When we meditate we are not trying to have thoughts about God.

Finley’s treatment of contemplative prayer and contemplative living is easy to grasp. He avoids the pitfalls of abstraction typical of books on apophatic spirituality by concretely illustrating his insights with examples from his own life. This primer of contemplative living is a fine introduction to the Christian apophatic tradition, a tradition shared equally by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

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