New and Ancient Beauty

Where do I turn for fresh inspiration? How do I learn from others who practice the spiritual life? Spiritual reading is part of the answer. Great devotional classics encourage me; but I also need contemporary thoughts and insights. New writers (or those who are new to me) keep me reflecting and praying. I’ve chosen a few here. Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears (Doubleday, 336p, $19.95; 0385512317). This is a collage of short sketches, personal reflections and ruminations on many aspects of our life with God. Some selections are poems. Rolheiser, who specializes in systematic theology and spirituality, may not be new to most readers, but I am at last catching up with his work. Considered a major spiritual voice (The Holy Longing, The Restless Heart), Rolheiser is down to earth, practical and frank. One chapter deals with a young couple who conceive a child out of wedlock. The young man is overcome with shame. He knew better, it never should have happened, his world is in ruins. The young man says: “Even God can’t unscramble an egg!”

Can God unscramble our lives? The question leads Rolheiser to reminisce about his own youthful Catholic formation: “I was raised in a Catholicism which was deeply moral. It took commitment seriously and called sin sin. It was, on most moral issues, brutally uncompromising.” Looking back, Rolheiser treasures the clarity of that upbringing, contrasted with the moral relativism of today. But he thinks that worldview was sometimes lacking in charity, in compassion, in second chances. “We need a theology that teaches us that even though we cannot unscramble an egg God’s grace lets us live happily and with renewed innocence….” He calls it a theology of brokenness, adding that we must learn that “time and grace wash clean.” In short, he is encouraging. He is preaching a Gospel not of guilt and condemnation, but of repentance and freedom. No sin of ours, however heavy, is beyond God’s transforming grace.


I was especially taken with “Monasticism and the Playpen,” in which Rolheiser recalls that monks are advised to practice at least one hour of private prayer daily, but that he has often advised young parents that an hour with babies in their playpens is a worthy substitute. Now he regrets—or at least wants to reconsider—the advice. Don’t young parents deserve a bit of quiet prayer time on their own? Soon, however, Rolheiser reaffirms his earlier counsel, suggesting that young children, and their way of interrupting, can create a true spiritual environment. He cites as authorities both the spiritual writer Carlo Carretto and St. John of the Cross. “Certain vocations, like that of raising children, offer a perfect setting for living a contemplative life. They provide a desert for reflection, a real monastery.”

One of the things I have recently learned about John of the Cross is that he was a joyful man, one who lifted burdens of anxiety and regret from other people’s hearts. Rolheiser seems to have a similar gift, no doubt shaped by years of pastoral work.

A lovely book to stuff into your briefcase (or wherever you stash your day’s reading) is God in the Moment: Making Every Day a Prayer, by Kathy Coffey (Orbis, 104p, $15; 0829411747). Winner of many religious book awards, a poet and wife and mother of four, Coffey has surely spent time in the monastery of interruptions. Her book’s cover shows someone going through a rainstorm under a large umbrella. I was struck by that illustration and Coffey’s unfolding of prayer in the middle of things. She imagines a day that begins with the psalm text, “The earth is full of the mercy of God.” Then she shows how we can find evidences of that mercy in the smallest details: “the job we’ve been procrastinating about...gets canceled. The three drops of gas left in the tank get us to the station. Someone who really shouldn’t have forgiven us does. Events conspire so that two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time can meet for dinner. A delay in leaving the office means catching an important phone call.” Coffey reminds us that we must receive and interpret the mercy in small events. Faith is needed to do this. How much easier to dismiss the ordinary good stuff, saying it would have happened anyway, and confine God to the major crises of our time. With wit and charm Coffey depicts “a dance of tiny steps [that] add up to a pattern of beautiful movement.”

But Coffey is also tough on us, as good spiritual writers are. Have we forgotten how to attend to God’s action? “Are we alert to the mercies that fill our days?” And to bring it all home, she provides challenging exercises after each short chapter. In one such instance, under the heading “Reflect,” she writes: “Unearth one day or one hour that gleams in your memory like treasure. Savor it.” Under the heading “Pray,” she suggests one or two sentences to start the reader off in prayer: “Even on a deadening day, when I am ill or tired, I can find one thing for which to be grateful. Today I am most grateful for….” One thing I appreciate is the author’s sharp reminder of how often we limit God’s grace, beat up on ourselves, restrict prayer and its effects to stereotypes. Ms. Coffey enlarges our vision. She insists that a walk along the road—which may not seem like prayer to us—is prayer, precisely because it is free, generous, improvised.

Robert Fabing, S.J., The Spiritual Life: Recognizing the Holy (Paulist, 137p, $14.95; 0809142090). Robert Fabing is the founder and director of the Jesuit Institute for Family Life Network. A spiritual director and a licensed psychotherapist, he is the director of the Thirty-Six Day Program in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at the Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos, Calif.. This book is a valuable treatment of what psychology has to teach us about the spiritual life. Years ago, during his novitiate, Robert Fabing had a major moment of insight when he accompanied other Jesuits on a 50-mile drive to San Francisco. As they drove through a neighborhood where homes were “right next to each other in neat long rows,” Fabing felt a presence of Christ within him saying, “Bob, do you see all the pain in those the living rooms, the kitchens, the bedrooms, the family rooms?” When Fabing gave a yes to the question, Christ within him gave a command: “I want you to do something about this.” And Fabing agreed that he would.

This book is part of what Fabing did in answer to the Lord’s command. It links our modern experience (especially the unconscious) with that of some insightful earlier teachers of prayer: Thomas à Kempis, Alphonsus Rodriguez, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Fabing examines these spiritual teachers and their ideas in new ways. The dark night, for instance, he looks at in terms of repression, anxiety and inaccuracy. The author sees a parallel between the “darkness” of John of the Cross and what Paul the Apostle calls “weakness.” Fabing helps us to recognize vulnerability and powerlessness as spiritual gifts. He also explains how guilt and self-condemnation get in our way. Best of all, he takes the old categories—purgation, illumination, union—and reclaims them for us.

Mary Ford-Grabowsky has written Stations of the Light: Renewing the Ancient Practice of the Via Lucis as a Spiritual Tool for Today (Doubleday, 212p, $11.95; 0385511655). The Via Lucis is the Christian Way of Light, encompassing 14 joyful events in the Christian story. Recognized by the Vatican in the Jubilee Year 2000, this devotion is both ancient (based on an inscription found in the Catacombs) and new because it takes its place beside the familiar Stations of the Cross, highlighting post-Resurrection events and encounters. Ford-Grabowsky holds a doctorate in theology and spirituality and a master’s in divinity, both from Princeton Theological Seminary. In this book—the first about the Via Lucis—she tells us a bit about her early childhood attraction to faith: “I began reading the Christian mystics at the age of eight and spent some of the happiest hours of my childhood at my aunt’s big convent on a hilltop in Brighton, Massachusetts.” From this very personal beginning the author proceeds to explain the Stations of the Light, arguing for this revival as much needed today. She quotes the Dalai Lama: “Spirituality is the immune system of the world.”

The 14 Stations of Light are: 1) Jesus rises from the dead; 2) women find the empty tomb; 3) the risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene; 4) Mary Magdalene proclaims the resurrection to the apostles; 5) the risen Lord appears on the road to Emmaus; 6) the risen Lord is recognized in the breaking of the bread; 7) the risen Lord appears to the disciples in Jerusalem; 8) the risen Lord gives the disciples the power to forgive; 9) the risen Lord strengthens the faith of Thomas; 10) the risen Lord says to Peter, “Feed my sheep”; 11) the risen Lord sends the disciples into the whole world; 12) the risen Lord ascends into heaven; 13) waiting with Mary in the upper room; 14) the risen Lord sends the Holy Spirit.

The author suggests that the Way of the Cross, with its focus on a single tragic day in the life of Jesus, tells only a part of the story and leaves out the happy ending. Of course, I found myself thinking, the happy ending is strongly implied, even in the Way of the Cross. But no matter. This Way of Light may remind you, as we hear in the Easter liturgy, that the joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world. A second section, on devotional practices, offers many suggestions keyed to each of the Stations of Light.

Now, about mantras and mandalas: the reader should note that Ford-Grabowsky is comfortable with terms some Christians have adopted from other world religions and from Jungian sources. She spends time on method as well as intention, (example: “coordinating the mantra with the out-breath”). Her instruction shows other traces of Eastern influence, such as “emptying the mind.” While I sometimes wanted to question her sweeping assertions (“the empty tomb...has long been neglected”), I was mostly encouraged by the creative impulse shown in this new development of Christian spirituality.

Possibly the best surprise among this fresh batch of spiritual books is When Women Pray: Our Personal Stories of Extraordinary Grace, by Lyn Holley Doucet and Robin Hebert (Crossroad, 190p, $16.95; 0824522796). I would admire these women and like their stories if they lived in Timbuktu. But as it happens, they both live in my home state of Louisiana (and I have not met either one!). Lyn Holley Doucet (A Healing Walk With St. Ignatius) is a spiritual director and a composer. Robin Hebert, former national president of the Theresians of the United States, has been a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, retreat leader and speaker. The book is an informal collection of personal stories, each one signed by L.H.D. or R.H. These pieces feel like journal entries or personal letters from a friend. Yet much instruction is embedded in them, introducing the reader to major figures in spirituality, including Thomas à Kempis and Thérèse of Lisieux, explaining various approaches to spiritual formation and transformation. The writers describe journal-keeping, spiritual direction, the prayer of examen, lectio divina and many other useful practices.

But there is another level in this book more important than instruction. Every page offers some kind of joyful expectation, a sense of God’s real presence. “I sat on a swing in a big pasture in Grand Coteau, Louisiana,” writes Doucet, “on a clear and sunny day during a retreat....” She is pondering the Transfiguration of Christ. Musing on this, she is carried back in memory to a village where she and her husband lived long ago, raising their young son. She remembers a vivid experience of light: “not the light of the sun, or anything familiar. It was my inner light, or it was God’s light, projected, a gauzy radiance that wrapped around everything, transforming individual things into a sacred whole.” After retrieving in memory this vision of light and wholeness, Doucet returns to her retreat office, where she hears stories of loss and brokenness from women at the retreat. But her sense of God’s light and peacefulness transforms everything.

Robin Hebert has a similar gift for seeing God’s presence. “The climax of my weekend came with an image I received as I completed my reading about Thérèse.... Thérèse saw herself as a little child at the foot of a long staircase, looking up to her Father standing at the top of the steps. As she placed her foot on that first step, in his almighty love, God swooped down to draw her up to him.” Hebert identifies with the child Thérèse at the foot of the staircase. And she learns how to let go. “I cannot relinquish anything on my own. All I can do is desire to surrender, and God does the rest.” Not every selection is quite so intense; but every one provides glimpses of transforming grace.

In a time when some are dubious about the future of Catholic life, I find these books reassuring on many levels. They draw on our ancient Catholic heritage. They show us how contemporary life and study may shape our faith. I am encouraged that such good new writers are coming onto the current scene, to tell us what God has in store.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years 6 months ago
I enjoyed reading this article which recommended spiritual books to inspire our everyday lives (“New and Ancient Beauty”, July 18). However, I would advise Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I. to rethink his advice to young parents that “an hour with babies in their playpen is a worthy substitute to an hour of private daily prayer,” and that “young children, and their way of interrupting, can create a true spiritual environment.”

Obviously, Rolheiser never raised a houseful of children. If he did, he would realize that allowing the interruptions to create a spiritual environment is only possible when parents make time for daily private prayer. There is no substitute!

Angela M. Belsole (mother of four)

13 years 6 months ago
I enjoyed reading this article which recommended spiritual books to inspire our everyday lives (“New and Ancient Beauty”, July 18). However, I would advise Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I. to rethink his advice to young parents that “an hour with babies in their playpen is a worthy substitute to an hour of private daily prayer,” and that “young children, and their way of interrupting, can create a true spiritual environment.”

Obviously, Rolheiser never raised a houseful of children. If he did, he would realize that allowing the interruptions to create a spiritual environment is only possible when parents make time for daily private prayer. There is no substitute!

Angela M. Belsole (mother of four)


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019