Saying “Yes” and Other Daily Doses of Discernment: a book review

There are a number of books  about spiritual discernment, evidenced by the shelf-full of books I own on discovering and discerning the will of God in times of choice. What sets Albert Haase’s Saying Yes apart from some of these, is his desire to set discernment within a larger frame than that decision-making-angst we feel when we are at a major crossroad. According to Haase, this book “highlights in a singular way that authentic Christian discernment requires daily listening to the megaphone God uses to communicate with us: the nitty-gritty of everyday life” (ix).

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Saying Yes: Discovering and Responding to God’s Will in Your Life by Albert Haase, OFM

Albert Haase, OFM, is an ordained Franciscan priest, a preacher, teacher, spiritual director, and former missionary to mainland China.  While his vocation is with the Franciscans, and he has plenty of examples of what discernment has looked like for him in that context, he draws broadly on the Christian tradition of discernment. He synthesizes patristic wisdom and Ignatian insights and the margins are peppered with quotations from Christian spiritual writers.  This short book designed to help all Christian’s pursue God’s dream for their life.

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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.

 

 

 

The Pathways to Christ-likeness: a book review

Those saints which are most like Jesus are the ones that have learned to walk with Him through all of life. They are secure in God’s love, they persevere in faith and are sustained by a strong hope. Helen Cepero, spiritual director and adjunct professor at North Park Seminary and Multnomah School of the Bible writes a rich meditation on the pathways to God. Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope shares the story of Cepero’s faith journey and the practices which have nurtured her spirit, as well as those to whom she has ministered with. But this is not a cookie-cutter approach to Christian spirituality. Cepero eschews formulas and detailed road maps. Instead she shares pieces of her own narrative and invites us to reflect on our own pathways to God.

In Christian theology, Faith, Hope and Love are called the theological virtues and are explored in much of the literature on Christian character formation (they come out of 1 Cor. 13:13). These virtues form the outline of Cepero’s book (here  Love, Faith and Hope) and frame her reflections on the spiritual Life. Each section is comprised of three chapters. Part one,  ‘Choosing Love,’ explores our identity as God’s beloved, and the practice of hospitality and forgiveness. As we cultivate our awareness of God and his love for us, this frees us up to welcome others and forgive just as we ourselves are forgiven and welcomed. Part two, ‘Choosing Faith’ helps us to cultivate our friendship with Jesus, embrace our vulnerabilities, and live life with integrity. Part three, ‘Choosing Hope,’ shows us how to cultivate attentiveness to God (through Sabbath), our ability to see God’s blessing in us and to trust God with our whole beings as we live improvisationally. Cepero is a Spiritual director and here, she helps us train our spiritual senses on where God is at work in our lives.

Cepero weaves together personal stories from her life and ministry with suggested spiritual practices, buried in the middle of each chapter rather than tagged on at the end. She is a perceptive writer on the spiritual life and quite the story teller. She begins her book by describing watching her ten-year-old daughter at a Beginners’ Band concert and then uses this an apt metaphor to describe how we begin our spiritual lives with the same sort of clumsy joy (as in art, so in life). The exercises she commends throughout her book include different types of prayer, meditation, Sabbath, various exercises in self examination, and Spiritual direction. These are rich reflections. well worth reading. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars and recommend it for anyone seeking to grow in intimacy with God: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Thank you to Intervarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

How to get Spiritual Direction: a book review

Abba, Give Me a Word: the Path of Spiritual Direction by L. Roger Owens

I do not see a spiritual director regularly; however I have benefited from spiritual direction at a couple of key moments in my life.  I commend the practice to you and I think that this resource does a good job of talking about what spiritual direction is, what to expect from it, and what it means to receive direction.  L. Roger Owens, is a pastor and has Spiritual wisdom of his own to impart; yet this book is primarily an opening up of his own journey and how his spiritual director helped him to pay attention to his own longings as he sought to discern the will of God in his life.

What is spiritual direction? Spiritual direction is  a relationship between a director (a wise guide or spiritual friend) and someone receiving direction, so to aid that person in discerning God’s presence and will and to aid them in their spiritual formation. Within spiritual direction, the director is really listening with you to your life to help you discover what God is doing there and how you should respond.

In Abba, give me a word, Owens walks through seven aspects of finding and receiving direction. Along the way he shares some real gems as he opens up about his own experience with his director.  He addresses Longings (paying attention to what we really want in life), Finding (a director and starting direction, Releasing (letting go of expectations), Offering (giving ourselves to God as an act of worship), Trusting ( your director and ‘obeying’ their direction), Attending (learning to pay attention to your life, including your desires, anger, joy, etc), and Going Well (leaving Spiritual Direction as someone who is whole).

While this book is primarily an introduction to spiritual direction, each of Owens points apply in general to the spiritual life. What I appreciated most about this book was the way Owens opened up his own experience, sharing the ways in which his spiritual director helped him come to realizations about himself.

So if spiritual direction is new for you, or you just like stories of spiritual growth, this is a good book for you. I have read several other books on spiritual direction which go more in-depth at various points, but I loved the conversational tone of this book.   It is well written, engaging and accessible.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.