A Slow, Sure Spiritual Journey

I have sometimes described Lent as a plunge into a thicket, an intentional wilderness journey in the company of Jesus Christ. Metaphors like these are rich and somewhat romantic. Yet the plain fact is that most of us must “do Lent” right where we are, smack in the middle of things. However we mark off the days by making some gift of self, through Lenten practices, attending Mass more frequently or works of mercy, Lent remains mostly an interior movement, a deliberate choosing to spend 40 days with the Lord. We want to follow him into the wilderness. We want to follow him to the cross.

For me, good reading is often the way in. I am not speaking here of lectio divina, as Lawrence Cunningham did in these pages so well last year. Instead, the phrase that comes to mind is festina lente, a wise Latin saying best rendered in English as “Make haste slowly.” (Apparently Suetonius attributed it to Augustus Caesar, but really it is one of those bits of popular wisdom that needs no author at all.)


If Lent is to be transformational, even modestly so, we should turn away from the haste and noise and slow down. And we should choose books that slow us down, even when we read them in small increments. Lenten books are not to be grasped in outlines, digests or executive summaries. Even though short (in number of pages), good Lenten books are long on wisdom and depth. Here are a few I would recommend.

Joyce Rupp’s book on prayer is entitled simply Prayer (Orbis and RCL Benziger, 2007, 128p, paperback, $10). This is the first in a projected series—Robert Morneau’s Reconciliation is the second—entitled “Catholic Spirituality for Adults.” Orbis will make the books available in bookstores and libraries, and RCL Benziger will distribute them through parish education centers. Central themes of the spiritual life will be explored, among them holiness, diversity of vocations, the primacy of charity, community, incarnation and Eucharist. Prominent Catholic authors are writing them, authors who command a large following and are already known as trusted spiritual guides.

Joyce Rupp (fondly remembered for her pilgrimage book, Walk in a Relaxed Manner) begins her exploration of prayer by noting how many good books are already published on this theme. “Why would I want to write another one?” But immediately she recognizes her own hunger for such books. “I continually read books related to spiritual growth even though I feel at home with God most of the time.” Is it, she asks, because we can never fully get our arms around the experience of the holy? “The longer we pray, the more we realize prayer is bigger than we are, more expansive and deeper. When we least expect it, our prayer brings us into further clarity about who we are and how we are to be with God and the world.” And prayer, she suggests, is always a project in motion. “We leave the finished product of prayer to the One who understands the desires of the heart.” Other striking aspects of Rupp’s discussion are reflected in her provocative chapter titles: “Entering Into a Relationship,” “The Tidal Patterns of Prayer,” “Keeping the Vigil of Mystery” and “Turning Prayer Inside Out.” Her approach to prayer is creative and imaginative. She enlightens and leads us. She proves to us once again that each person’s prayer is unique and refreshing and can enrich the whole community’s life.

Robert Morneau’s Reconciliation (Orbis and RCL Benziger, 2007, 141p, paperback, $10) is also a real encouragement, not only because the author invites us to the sacrament itself, but also because he deepens our appreciation of what it is to be reconciled. Robert Morneau is the auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis. He writes and speaks often on the spiritual life. Morneau’s theology is simple and familiar: “When we name and take responsibility for those attitudes and behaviors that separate us from God and our brothers and sisters, we become disposed to the influx of God’s forgiveness.” And he draws illustrations from his own wide reading and love of literature as well as theology. Writing about the mystery of God’s mercy, he cites St. Thérèse of Lisieux and quotes Portia from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”: “the quality of mercy is not strained/ it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven….” When discussing the human person, Bishop Morneau draws on sources as poetic as Gerard Manley Hopkins and as theological as Karl Rahner and Pope John Paul II. The “Questions and Answers” chapter is especially practical, and he closes with a sheaf of his own poems. I especially liked the one subtitled “On Re-Reading C. S. Lewis’s TheScrewtape Letters.” Better than any instruction, it shows, in a light vein, how examination of conscience should be done.

I plan to spend time this Lent with Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (W. W. Norton, 2007, cloth, 518p, $35). Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative religion at the University of California, Berkeley, and the translator of several works from the Hebrew Scriptures, including The Five Books of Mosesand The David Story (1 and 2 Samuel). Alter’s approach and much of his commentary is focused on how to render the psalms faithfully and attentively from ancient Hebrew into modern English. His lengthy preface reminds me of Ronald Knox’s Trials of a Translator in that he wants to persuade us that what he is doing is rather difficult but that somehow he is doing it anyway. But my focus is on drawing closer to the psalms themselves and gaining the illusion that Alter—by his learning and literary gifts—puts me near to the prayerbook Jesus used.

What is the value—the spiritual quotient—of a new translation like Alter’s? It is not so much a text for prayer, since in praying the psalms we tend to use the Bibles we already know, the texts approved by the church for the Liturgy of the Hours, or possibly a favorite psalm text we have learned “by heart.” Once, years ago, I memorized Psalm 139 according to the Jerusalem Bible, and now it is embedded in my soul. But Alter’s new translation startles and refreshes me. I can never fully anticipate what he will do next. Just when I think he is all 21st century, he will use a word like “foes,” which calls up Shakespearean echoes. Much of what attracts me is the sheer size and daring of what he is attempting, for he wants us to hear the Hebrew through the English text. Are the psalms prayer for him? I’m not exactly sure. But in his hands the word of God is living and true and razor-sharp.

Jeremy Langford’s new treatment of the ancient ways is entitled Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life (Paraclete Press, 2008, 176p, paperback, $15.95). Langford, who in many ways has spoken for and to his own generation of Catholic believers, is now, in my view, speaking to all of us in this wide-ranging exploration of lived faith and spiritual formation. He raises a battery of questions: Who am I? Why believe? What do I really want? Then he thoughtfully answers with a coherent, nuanced and authoritative treatment of the spiritual life, exploring meditation, prayer, solitude, friendship, thinking, spiritual direction, discipleship and more.

I was especially taken with his chapter “Living Fully in the Moment,” which proceeds from some words of Thich Nhat Hanh about mindfulness. This is not the first spiritual reflection I have read on washing dishes or laundry. This one, however, was riveting; Langford’s acuity and perception took me entirely by surprise. Once again I was blindsided by the simple truth of living in the present moment with a deeper sense of the presence of God in every atom, every detail. The whole book is crammed with similar insights.

What will bring us into the wilderness with Christ and help us walk with him right to the end? I remember C. S. Lewis’s counsel on the importance of reading old books, the classics through which he felt “the clean sea breeze of the centuries.” Lewis advised his readers to read two old books for every new one. Fortunately, today’s publishers oblige us by making ancient wisdom easy to come by. Two devotional classics come to mind: Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B., Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Michael J. Miller, trans., (Ignatius Press, 2002, 222p, paperback, $14.95). Gabriel Bunge is a Benedictine monk in Switzerland who has been living the eremitical life since 1980. Deeply plunged into the patristic tradition, he draws on it habitually and invites us to taste this holy wisdom as well. With this book it is truly important to slow down, because every explanation or definition may serve as a call to prayer. Even when Bunge is lamenting the random and confused use of the term “spirituality” in modern life, he is at the same time calling us back to an authentic definition drawn from Scripture and from patristic writing: “For here the word ‘spiritual’ refers unambiguously to the Person of the Holy Spirit.” Another modern classic is Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom, by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (Ignatius Press, 2003, 177p, paperback, $15.95). This is a thorough and effective treatment of Gospel poverty as it can be lived by those in all walks of life. In a chapter called “Emptiness and Radical Readiness,” Dubay writes: “I should now like to say this in biblical terms. Detachment is one half of this readiness. Humility is the other. Poverty is related to both.”

Again, this is a book to be savored, with pauses for reflection. Consider the following passage. “Sensible people do not choose emptiness for the sake of emptiness. Of itself negation has no value…. Reality is made to be and to be full. Silence has no value in itself. The value of negative things derives, must derive, from something positive, something they make possible.” Dubay is conveying ancient Christian wisdom when he opens us up to the freedom of simplicity.

This Lent, may you dwell deeply in and with Christ, walking with slow, sure steps the path to eternal life.

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Charles Lewis
10 years 11 months ago
One of the best books for Lent is Death on a Friday Afternoon by Father Richard Neuhaus, the editor of First Things. Each chapter is a meditation on one of the seven last words from the cross. It is a deeply moving book. I bought last year and read it throug Lent. Will do the same again this year.


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