From the Circus to the Garden: a ★★★★★ book review

Contemporary life is a circus like existence. We balance priorities, juggle demands, jump through hoops  as  we strive to tame our schedules. Or else we are distracted by the performances of others with little attention paid to our souls.  Susan Philllips, spiritual director and professor of sociology and Christianity at New College Berkeley asks, “How can we participate in the cultivation of our souls in a ceaselessly striving, circus-like culture that pushes us to be performers and spectators?” (15).  The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy is her answer to that question.  She unfolds the spiritual practices which cultivate fruitful living.

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The Cultivated Life by Susan Phillips

Phillips’s prose awakens a hunger for the deeper Christian life. In her introduction, she shares this story from Matt who came to her for Spiritual direction (not his real name). Matt said to her:

I have been a Christian for decades. I try to live the right way, but I am not sure I made much progress the way forward, you know, the way of growth even flourishing. . . . I feel, spiritually the same way I did when I became a Christian as a teenager. I haven’t grown but I’m older. . . . I’d like to end well, if you know what I mean. I am not sure  what way of living would make a change, a change to the rut I am in spiritually. (16)

If you have ever felt like this, you know the frustration of not living with Christ as your center,vnot maturing, and feeling unfruitful. Phillips describes this numbness and spiritual malaise as a circus–this place where we are either performer or spectator:

There are physical sensations, or the lack of them associated with the circus experience of ‘vegging out,’ ‘pedaling faster’ and ‘jumping through hoops.’ As we’re thrown into shallow places of performing and spectating, we are bereft of feeling and sensation (an-esthetic= without feeling) in both circus positions. Yet people long to see, here and feel. (25)

Phillips helps us move away from these roles by pursuing nurturing practices which cultivate our inner life.

There are several types of practices Phillips commends. She asks us to pay attention to our own life and the things we do which we find life-giving (chapter two). She advocates a contemplative listening posture– a posture of receptivity toward God and others(chapter three). She invites us to ‘stop’ and practice Sabbath by turning away from the circus  toward God (chapters four and five). In chapter six, Phillips calls us to a cultivated attention, a form of Christian mindfulness informed by “texts, communities, tradition, teachers and guides and the all-surrounding presence of God” (116).  She  also advises praying scripture (chapter seven),  and developing relational  attachments which nurture us,  such as spiritual direction and friendship (chapters  eight through eleven). These practices promote and help us live into a fruitful and complete life (chapter twelve and conclusion). An appendix gives guidelines for the practices of  contemplative listening, sabbath living, lectio divina, finding a spiritual director, and cultivating friendship.

Eugene Peterson writes in the forward, “Susan Phillips has been for many years my writer of choice in matters of spiritual direction and maturing a robust Christian life” (9). He describes  Phillips deft use of metaphor, her self-implicating naming and her skillful story telling (10-14).  I could make a similar statement about Peterson, whose own books have been my go-to books for spiritual insight and pastoral advice. His commendation of Phillips is true, and I can see her quickly becoming a favorite author. This book made me hunger for a deeper, fruitful life. It is well illustrated by examples drawn from Phillips’s life and from her role as a director and professor.

There are no shortage of books about spiritual disciplines. Some of them are mediocre, others quite good. However, the notion of spiritual disciplines often fraught by a too privatized and consumeristic picture of what it means to live the Christian life. Often we are given something new to try out as an addendum to our own over-full lives.  What I appreciate most about Phillips’s approach is the way she calls us to relationship–to finding a director or spiritual guide, and friends who will share the journey. Phillips focus is on personal, spiritual growth, but she sets this within a communal context.

Phillips’s metaphors and images are organic and relational.  She is wise guide, and there were no shortage of passages I underlined, mulled over and re-read.I give this five stars and recommend it for anyone else frustrated with life in the circus. May God use this book to enliven you with his life! ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

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