Who wouldn’t want to be in bed with a good book?

Coleman, In Bed with the WordDaniel Coleman, In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics (Edmonton, AB: The University of Alberta Press, 2009).

In this fascinating book, Coleman offers reflections on reading and the spiritual life.

In ‘Reading and Longing’, he understands reading as ‘erotic’ in that, ‘like all eros, it leaps with energy and passion; it compels our focus; it reaches out toward an Other’ (p. 13). It leads to an experience of fusion, of being inhabited by another, which frees us from the confines of our own perceptions, opening us to those of others, thus facilitating growth and an intimate connection with the larger world.

‘Reading as Counterculture’ explores reading as quiet time, as a form of solitude, as ‘private and politically relevant contemplation’, as an ‘imaginative and dialogical’ practice that is slow, active and reflective – all of which is countercultural in a society that is ‘increasingly drawn away from silence, slowness, reflection, and internally generated imagination’ (p. 31).

In ‘Posture’, Coleman emphasises that, ‘if we are to rediscover a spiritually nourishing experience of reading, we need to rediscover … a posture of openness and expectation, … an intention … to connect with something larger than and outside of our own sphere of experience’ (p. 59).

‘The Structure of Absence’ includes reflections on how kenotic, self-emptying, reading that is imaginative and responsive leads to and indeed is in itself ekstasis, the transcending of ourselves by ‘paying fierce and generous attention to others as others’ (p. 70), which can lead to an experience of intimacy that is both erotic and profoundly spiritual.

Finally, in ‘Eating the Book’, Coleman explores how the book we read becomes us in that it shapes what we see, how we hear and what we perceive. Taking his cue from Ezekiel 2:8–3:3, where the prophet is told to eat a scroll of grief that tastes sweet as honey to him, Coleman also reflects on the transformative power of books of pain, sorrow and grief, on the pleasures of devastation, confirmation and surprise, all of which are equally important to a spirituality of reading, and on the empowering potential of books, which can lead to profound personal, social and political change.

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Insights from psychology and Christian mystics combine in these reflections on spiritual transformation

BennerDavid G. Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012).

This book discusses spiritual transformation from a psychological perspective, which traces the development of the self through four key stages: the body-centred, mind-centred, soul-centred and spirit-centred self.

Benner includes insights from Christian mystics, he considers the role of spirituality in human awakening, and he explores the importance of the communal context for transformation.

Appendices on the function of dreams for human growth and transformation and on meditation, prayer and awakening complete the book.

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An introductory textbook for those wishing to explore spirituality

RuncornDavid Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook: A Guide for Explorers, Pilgrims and Seekers (London: SPCK, 2006).

Runcorn’s Spirituality Workbook falls into five parts. The first takes a historical perspective, looking at the desert tradition and its spiritual legacy, at Anglican and Orthodox spirituality and modern expressions in the Pentecostal and evangelical traditions.

Part two explores the spiritual life in the context of community, discussing, among other things, rules of life, communion and personality types.

Part three is devoted to identity, personhood and spirituality. This includes attention to the body, sexuality and the stages of life.

The fourth part focuses on different expressions of prayer: intercession, confession and forgiveness, the role of the Spirit in Christian spirituality, liturgy, and Ignatian spirituality.

The final section discusses how Christian spirituality is lived out in the real world. Here Runcorn considers issues such as creation, spirituality in times of uncertainty and transition, prayer in a world of violence, contemplative prayer and engagement with the world, and spirituality beyond religion.

This being a workbook, each chapter features helpful suggestions for thought, prayer, activity and further reading.

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Reflections on transformation and our true self

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (London: SPCK, 2013).

Written in Rohr’s inimical style, this book contrasts our false and true selves, exploring how we can find the latter through a process of true transformation.

Along the way, there are many astute reflections on a variety of issues, including non-dual thinking, judgementalism, atonement, intimacy, vulnerability and love.

Here’s what Rohr has to say about loving and dying:

Every time you choose to love, you have also just chosen to die. Every time you truly love, you are letting go of yourself as an autonomous unit and have given a bit of yourself away to something or someone else, and it is not easily retrieved – unless you choose to stop loving – which many do. These first moments of ecstatic release from imprisonment in yourself are wonderful, erotic, and immensely live giving.

As always, Rohr is well worth a read for his profound theological and psychological insights.

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Sing a few ribald songs

Hafiz, I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Joy and Hope. Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky (New York: Penguin, 2006).

‘I Heard God Laughing’ is an apt title for this wonderful collection of poems by the fourteenth-century mystic and poet Hafiz or Hafez of Shiraz. These indeed are poems of hope and joy – and love and wonder, one might add, rendered into contemporary English with great poetic skill by Daniel Ladinsky.

Here’s an example to whet your appetite:

If It Is Not Too Dark

Go for a walk, if it is not too dark.
Get some fresh air, try to smile.
Say something kind
To a safe-looking stranger, if one happens by.

Always exercise your heart’s knowing.

You might as well attempt something real
Along this path:

Take your spouse or lover into your arms
The way you did when you first met.
Let tenderness pour from your eyes
The way the Sun gazes warmly on the earth.

Play a game with some children.
Extend yourself to a friend.
Sing a few ribald songs to your pets and plants –
Why not let them get drunk and wild!

Let’s toast
Every rung we’ve climbed on Evolution’s ladder.
Whisper, ‘I love you! I love you!’
To the whole mad world.

Let’s stop reading about God –
We will never understand Him.

Jump to your feet, wave your fists,
Threaten and warn the whole Universe.

That your heart can no longer live
Without real love!

A concluding essay on ‘The Life and Work of Hafiz’ by Henry S. Mindlin and a short annotated bibliography conclude one of the most delightful books I have read in a while.

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Doing the things he can’t do

Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Even though his papacy is still a young one, Pope Francis has  surprised many, not only by being elected pope in the first place, but also by how unconventionally and daringly he has approached his illustrious role.

Paul Vallely’s book offers some fascinating glimpses into the life of this most unusual and controversial pope. We learn about his upbringing and meteoric rise through the ranks of the Jesuits and the divisions he once caused within The Society of Jesus in Argentina. We find out about his behaviour during Argentina’s Dirty War, which raised serious questions about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ecclesiastical leadership. Vallely’s account strikes me as balanced and judicious; it avoids rash conclusions one way or the other, weighing the pros and cons of Bergoglio’s words and actions carefully and, it seems to me, fairly.

We are told about Bergoglio’s remarkable transformation, which turned the man, who once condemned liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor, into the Bishop of the slums. And there is a captivating account not only of the conclave that would see Bergoglio elected pope, but also of the first days of Pope Francis’s papacy.

There are many little gems in this book, such as the story of the old, tattered shoes that the newly elected pope would be unwilling to surrender. But I would like to conclude, just as the book does, with the words of Alicia Oliveira, one of Francis’s closest friends. It was in a telephone conversation (apparently, previous popes would not make phone calls), she says, that she learned that ‘he’s having a great time. … He’s having fun with all the people in the Vatican telling him he can’t do things – and then doing them’.

A refreshing pope, and a compelling book.

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A love affair with the Sabbath

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

A classic this, first published in 1951, and still well worth a read. It’s a passionate account by a well-known Jewish scholar of his love for the Sabbath. For Heschel the Sabbath is a day where the goal is not to have but simply to be; it’s a Cathedral in time, a day when we don’t dominate the world, a day for the sake of life, not an interlude but the climax of living, an opportunity to mend our tattered lives, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day of armistice in our cruel struggle for existence, the exodus from tension; it teaches all beings whom to praise.

The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit. It gives us the opportunity to sanctify time, to raise the good to the level of the holy, to behold the holy by abstaining from profanity.

It’s such an important day for Heschel because our ‘inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people’. This the Sabbath teaches us to achieve.

Judaism tries to foster the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives. It seeks to displace the coveting of things in space for coveting the things in time, teaching [us] to covet the seventh day all days of the week.

Heschel concludes the account of his love affair with the Sabbath, pointing out that ‘there are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath’.

Over sixty years old, this is still an important book (perhaps even more so now than when it first appeared) and a wonderful account of the importance and joys of the Sabbath.

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