Finding God in All Things: 10 Books for 2018

Ten Books for Finding God in All Things

From time to time, as both a writer and a spiritual director, I get asked for book recommendations. So on this cold and snowy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in the U.S., I stayed inside and scoured my shelves for ten books I would highly recommend, books that are both well-read and well-loved, books that have pointed me in different ways to the movement of God in my life, inspired me by their beauty and story, or have somehow appeared in my life just when I needed them most.

These are in no particular order, other than how I spied them on the shelf. You’ll see quite a few in the realm of Ignatian spirituality, for it has been the life, work and legacy of that 16th century solider-turned-saint that has inspired and guided me most in the past few years.

A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer: Discovering the Power of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen, by Jim Manney (Loyola Press, 2011)
This is a short and powerful book, and I always keep a few on hand so I have one to give away to anyone who asks about how to get started in prayer. St. Ignatius’ Examen is an ancient and life-changing prayer that encourages and guides us toward a more aware and grateful life, and Manney’s book is a sensible guide to establishing awareness as the beginning of our prayer lives. Or anytime, really.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1974)
My copy of this classic memoir of a year spent observing the natural world in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Valley is faded, marked and a bit dog-eared, but those are signs of an important book in my humble library. By watching closely, Dillard finds a world filled with astonishing incidents of “mystery, death, beauty and violence.” Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, she had me with that great opening paragraph: “I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest….And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.” This is a book I need to revisit yet again soon for, while not religious in the traditional sense, it is a book that has again and again pointed me toward God. (And my thanks to my old friend and mentor Judi Linville for suggesting I read this book nearly 40 years ago.)

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr (Jossey Bass, 2011)
Rohr’s guide to the “second half of life” has become a go-to book for many trying to discern what God might have in store for their later years. Rohr, the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, offers a new paradigm for looking at older age, one focused on emerging from the first half of life (filled as it is with gaining, earning and building) into a gentler time of “falling upward,” of allowing our failings and weaknesses to usher us into a new era of spiritual growth.

The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, by Ronald Rolheiser (Doubleday, 1999)
This is one of the books that fell into my hands almost mystically, right when I needed it most, right when my brother was dying and I needed something to read in the waiting room. I could not have asked for a better companion. This is a great book for those beginning the search for a deeper spirituality, for this is a book that goes deep and lays out the “non-negotiables” of Christian spirituality — community worship, social action, the centrality of the Incarnation and the sustenance of spiritual life.

Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned and Keep Your Day Job, by Kerry Webber (Loyola Press, 2014)
So often I look to my elders and peers for guidance and sage advice, but every once in a while I need a not-so-gentle reminder that wisdom very often comes from the young. In this thin volume, I found great insight and inspiration from a brilliant, young, very funny and busy New Yorker (and managing editor of America magazine) who decides to commit her 40 days of lent to practicing the corporal works of mercy in a city of 8 million souls. Easy, right?

God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will, by Mark Thibodeaux, SJ (Loyola Press, 2010) I spent about nine months with this book last year as part of a study group, and I have come to rely on it as a common-sense guide to the Ignatian decision-making process. Thibodeaux, a Jesuit novice master, clearly helps his readers understand how important it is to trust our own “thoughts, feelings and desires when it comes to discerning God’s will.” Thoughtfully organized to be useful and peppered with real-life stories of decisions gone right and wrong, this is a book for anyone trying to be more thoughtful about the many decisions that come our way every day.

My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, SJ (Loyola Press, 2006)
Like one of Fr. Martin’s other books that I frequently take out and re-read (Jesus: A Pilgrimage), “My Life with the Saints” is part memoir and part guidebook, drawing us into the lives of the saints (both canonized and non-canonized, from Peter and Mary to St. Ignatius and St. Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day). It’s Martin’s great storytelling that brings these individuals alive for us and allows them to guide us by example to holiness.

The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, by Thomas Merton (Harper, 1999)
“Perhaps the Book of Life, in the end, is the book one has lived,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1956. Many have read Merton’s landmark memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, the story of his coming to faith and to the monastic life, but this collection of journal entries over 29 years, culled from the seven volumes of his journals that have now been published, expands on his famous memoir and gives us a peek at the real and unedited Merton, a man often torn by the very discipline of monastic life that formed him. It is a book of both “confession and witness.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J.M. Nouwen (Image, 1992)
In one of the most well-read and beloved books of 20th Christian spirituality, the Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes of his chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and the spiritual adventure that follows. This is a deep, beautiful and meaningful meditation on what it means to be loved unconditionally. For the 25th anniversary of its publication, it is currently being offered in a reissued and elegant hard-cover edition, but it’s available in paperback, too.

Hidden Wings: Emerging from Troubled Times with New Hope and Deeper Wisdom, by Margaret Silf (Darton, Longman + Todd, 2017)
With the metaphor of the butterfly’s transformation as the book’s foundation, spiritual explorer and director Margaret Silf tells both the story of the butterfly (a spiritual journey itself into the mysteries of nature) and provides guidance for those “struggling to plot a spiritual path through this unfamiliar landscape, and to believe in a positive future.” Like another of Silf’s books that I reviewed a few years ago (Just Call Me Lopez: Getting to the Heart of Ignatius Loyola), Hidden Wings is a daring and creative take on the constant and ever-evolving presence and movement of God in our lives.

Boy Like Me: The Call of Jesus in the Temple

That's me, right about 12.

Well, I was twelve years old in the meeting house
Listening to the old men pray.
Well, I was tryin’ hard to figure out
What it was that they was tryin’ to say.
There you were in the temple
They said, “You weren’t old enough to know the things you knew.”

And did they tell you stories ’bout the saints of old,
Stories about their faith?
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold,
Stories like that make a man walk straight.

(Rich Mullins, Boy Like Me)

In the Catholic Church and other liturgical denominations that follow a regular lectionary of scripture readings, this is the time of year that we hear what little we know about Jesus’ early years. There’s not much there, of course, once the Holy Family returns from exile in Egypt. (They were refugees, after all, and it’s important to remember that in these days).

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A New Psalm 8 for the New Year

A painted sky, Sedona. SJG photo.

As we head into the New Year this cold, cold, cold (did I mention it is cold here in St. Louis?) Sunday morning, I find myself yearning for spring and pondering two of the (many) great mysteries of life: First, why are we so gifted with the beauty, bounty and intricacy of the world around us? And second, in the midst of all this signal of God’s glory—small and hidden as we are as minuscule beings in the vastness of the earth and universe—who are we that God is mindful of us?

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Jacob in the Morning: Surely God is in this place

Every moment sacred. Sedona sunset in Sue's hand. SJG photo.

For this cold Sunday morning, I offer a retelling of a story from Genesis 28…a story that challenges us to consider that the holy is all around us — not merely in temples and churches, not only in sacraments and to the accompaniment of soaring music or while standing in inspiring places of natural or human-created beauty. The holy is where we are at any given moment of our day, if only we’re willing to look for God in that moment. Imagine Jacob, the morning after his dream:

It’s the “morning after” as I tell this story to myself, hoping that speaking it out loud will allow me to remember everything I experienced last night…

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When we walk in faith, each breath is a prayer

Doe Mountain Trailhead, near Sedona, AZ. SJG photo.

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.”  – C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Over the past four days visiting the beautiful red rock country surrounding Sedona, Arizona, Sue and I have taken a hike each day. It’s easy to do here, for there are trailheads at the end of just about every road and many, many hikes of varying lengths and difficulty from which to choose. So, whether you are occasional enthusiasts like us looking for “easy to moderate” trails, or more experienced (and fit!) folks looking for something much more challenging, Sedona is a wonderful place to put one foot in front of the other and take a hike.

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Today’s Word: Wonder

Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, Arizona. SJG photo.

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”  – Socrates

When the heroine of E.B. White’s classic children’s novel “Charlotte’s Web” first writes “SOME PIG” in her web in an attempt to save her friend Wilbur’s life, she was creating more than a PR campaign. She was creating wonder. She was making everyone who saw her web stop in their tracks, stand back, scratch their heads, and try to contemplate something they couldn’t fathom. That seems like a pretty good way to go through life.

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The Creative Spirit: The Human Necessity of ‘Being Moved’

One in bloom, one on waiting. SJG photo

Over the past week, I have been reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ve seen the B movies and a very good theatrical version years ago at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, but I’ve never read the book. It was assigned reading this year for all the first-year students at the university where I work, so I thought I would join the throng of readers.

We all read books, poems and sacred texts with different mindsets and personal histories, of course, so these words purposefully and creatively strung together by the authors affect each person differently. As regular readers of my blog no doubt know, I write often on the idea of paying attention to the world around us, of leaving ourselves open to being moved by the things in our lives and, ultimately, by the looming presence of God. So I was delighted to read this passage below, spoken by Dr. Frankenstein about his hike through the woods and mountains, during which he observed the desolation after an avalanche, dangerous and deep ravines, “somber” pines, the distant valley with mist rising off the river and the mountain summits shrouded in clouds. In short, he was paying attention and was deeply aware of the human necessity of being moved. He says:

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The Creative Spirit: Conversation and Storytelling

Opening the door to conversation and storytelling. SJG photo.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll certainly see a few repeating themes, among them the importance of living in awareness and gratitude of God and the critical nature of silent, contemplative prayer to do that. But there’s more, of course. As much as we need our times of silence, we need times of conversation and storytelling with friends new and old.

I received an email from L’Arche St. Louis this morning that helped drive this idea home for me, for the email contained this quote from Henri Nouwen, who lived in a L’Arche community for many years:

“Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life.”

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Today’s Word: Gasp

Springfield (Mo) Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

“You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.” – St. Augustine, Confessions

I am up early this morning sitting on the back porch because, well, I can. Yesterday the St. Louis area was hit with a record 108 degrees, and the ever-present St. Louis humidity made it feel somewhere up around 113. Not fit for man or beast. It was hard to catch my breath and find good oxygen. Perhaps I need to evolve some gills to better snatch the oxygen out of the air. Yet I know this will pass, as this morning it already has…for a while at least.

Heatwaves, snowstorms and other extremes of nature have a way of getting our attention. They smack us across the face and remind us of the power, majesty and unpredictability of the earth. They recall for us of the continuing cycles of nature, of the gentle spinning and revolving of the earth around its axis and around the sun, taking us into and out of our days, nights, seasons and years. If we think we’re in control, we need to stop and think again. We’re along for the ride.

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Today’s Word: Turns

Garden Path near Santa Fe. SJG photo.

There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.” Mark Nepo

I was talking to a friend recently who is trying to make a big life decision – one of those seemingly huge choices that appear to be riddled with opportunities for both success and failure. In the words of those sage rock ‘n’ roll philosophers from The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”

He is going about the discernment process in all the right ways, I believe. He’s talking to trusted friends and advisors. He’s doing his homework on the new place. He’s considering what he will be leaving behind. He’s praying and trying to leave it all in the hands of God, who knows him better than he knows himself. Still, it’s a tough decision. He’s not hearing any voices. He’s not receiving any divine telegraphs. As it so often happens in life, we have to make these decisions for ourselves, hoping and praying that it’s the right one. It can be a scary and confusing time.

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