Together in Spirit

Book cover
Seasons of a Family's Lifeby By Wendy M. WrightJohn Wiley and Sons, Inc. 208p $19.95

I came to this book with certain interior conflicts of my own. I wound up loving the book, and listening to my own heart better. I agree with so many of Wendy Wright’s insights, her way of affirming the contemplative life in the midst of everything. I appreciate her genuine authority, and the way she exerts it lightly. Clearly she knows the Christian tradition in great depth, and she invokes it throughout this book; yet there is never any trace of the lecturer, the pontificator, the one who lays down the law. She reflects deeply. She discerns. And she also teaches by example when she draws us a picture of her own experience and her own spiritual struggles.

What were my conflicts? I am sure now that they are external to this book; I brought them with me before I opened the covers, and Wendy Wright dispersed them with her gentle, candid style. My conflicts had to do with the notion of family spirituality that sets up an impossible ideal of family holiness and collective spiritual practice. I have long resisted the idea that families must practice certain seasonal rituals, perhaps because of my own attempts to establish a family Advent ritual at home, long ago, and being met with heavyweight teenage resistance. I soon gave way to a broader appreciation of the sacredness of family life, one that does not import a churchy spirituality, but rather finds God in the middle of things: in holidays, preparations, visiting, traveling, homecomings, laughter, tears, conviviality, comfortable styles of common prayer, talking things over, talking things through.

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This is exactly the spiritual context that Wendy Wright means to celebrate. She understands the tensions and conflicts of family life and does not idealize the tensions of daily living. Instead, she proposes a style of contemplative living that is practical within and through these day-to-day challenges. Carefully she distinguishes between the high interiority of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and the earlier Christian contemplation of Augustine, Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux, which she calls a listening awareness. And, not surprisingly, her reflections are also unaffectedly biblical.

Wright is a professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., a church historian, a retreat and workshop leader, as well as a wife and mother of three adult children, and one who clearly practices contemplation in the middle of everything. That she can reflect on and explain the nature of the spiritual lifeher discussion of spiritual formation at the very beginning of the book gives us a brief history of formation and liberates the term for a broader audience that needs it urgentlyis a blessing to the reader. She assures us that if there ever was a school of love, it is the family (reminding me immediately of Evelyn Underhill’s masterly short work, The School of Charity). On the same page she uncomplicates the spiritual life, pointing out that the fundamental art of the spiritual life is the art of paying attention.

It seems obvious that Wright has herself been deeply schooled in spirituality by formative times of solitude, silence and reflection. She was shaped by what the monks have to teach us, and cites Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection as one of the best monastic sources for contemplation amid the distractedness of modern life and family living.

The best thing about this book is not its learned discussionsthey are sprinkled gracefully throughoutbut instead its candor and the author’s capacity to show us the texture of living spiritually on a day-to-day basis. While the book is not a memoir, it is shot through with personal stories, recollections, anecdotes and even a kind of journal of the seasons, which carries us through certain specific times and the whole experience of time: winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter yet again, spring yet again, summer yet again, autumn yet again.

What honesty surfaces as Wright recounts her own stories! One riveting entry reads: Middle of the Night in Winter, Omaha 1995: I lie awake in the darkened bedroom, my husband’s somnambulant breathing accompanied on and off by the onrush of sound from the forced-air heating ducts. I press my ear to the airspace between these two respirations, where I hear the click of the key in the downstairs lock that signals my teenage daughter’s arrival home, just before her 1 a.m. curfew. I try to read her stepcautious or self-assured, fatigued or energized? I note the tone of her response to my verbal welcomehearty, irritated, ringing with contentment? Or tense and preoccupied?

I realize that Wright has completely captured me with one tiny sentence: I try to read her step. The deep connectedness between mother and child and the mother’s need to come to grips with her daughter’s growing independencethis is the true seed-ground of a mature spirituality lived in the middle of things. Only a few paragraphs later, Wright is asking herself the hardest questions, challenging herself for caring too much about appearances, about looking good (to others and to God) and letting surface a really remarkable thought, Where does love lie? She explores that tough question provocatively; then she places herself with Jesus in the wilderness, attempting to know him as the beloved Son.

Contemplative prayer is about transformation, Wright tells us, about being reshaped into the full persons we were created to be. Throughout Seasons of a Family’s Life, she demonstrates how this happens in the middle of everything. Under chapter headings like Staying Awake After Lunch: The Art of Discernment and The Scent of the Eucalyptus Trees: A Sacred Sense of Place, Wright uses her poetic gifts to open up a rich universe of meaning. At the end, her Invitation to Reflection offers practical questions and exercises matched to each chapter.

If you are in search of a refreshing and intellectually grounded spiritual resource, this may be just the book for you.

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