I enjoyed reading during my sabbatical. Here is a list and brief commentary on seven of the books that I particularly liked:
1. Saroo Brierly, “Lion” (previously published as “A Long Way Home: A Memoir”), Toronto: Penquin Books, 2013.
This memoir was also made into a motion picture under the title, “Lion”. The author documents his traumatic story of becoming separated from his family and lost as a child in India. Miraculously he finds help at the right time and the resources he needs to escape an impoverished and dangerous life on the street in Calcutta, and start his life over in Australia. Under the care of loving foster parents, he responds to an inner longing. His journey home is about finding the roots of his life in India. The story is about death and resurrection, relationships, and journeys of longing, searching, and finding.
2. Charles Foster, “Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience”, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010.
I find Charles Foster to be both delightful and humorous, as well as serious and respectful of the Christian faith. This is not an easy balancing act to perform in one book. He nevertheless provides a thorough academic and scholarly background to his arguments. He suggests that both belief and experience are essential to the journey of faith. But he does not give glib and easy answers to complicated questions and paradoxes of life and truth. Particularly, I enjoyed learning more about the biology of our brains and how the mechanisms of neurotransmitters and other functions of the cortex relate to near-death, out-of-body, mystic and intensive care experiences. Pointing to historical and current examples, Foster weaves a rich and (shall I say) entertaining read. I first encountered Richard Foster reading his “Sacred Journeys” published around the same time.
3. Adam Shoalts, “Alone Against the North: An Expedition into the Unknown“, Toronto: Penquin, 2015.
A Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, Adam Shoalts writes about his recent wilderness expeditions to the Hudson Bay Lowlands. In his gripping true tale of adventure, he tells the story of persistence, human resolve, success and failure. Relating his personal experience Shoalts comments on the nature and passion of exploration. He exemplifies the survivalist par excellence who depends on the land, water and air and with simple means survives life-threatening dangers in unsuspecting waterfalls and killer polar bears. Despite all the obstacles, he is pulled forward by an unrelenting motivation to complete the journey.
4. Phil Cousineau, “The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred”, San Francisco: Conari Press, 1998.
A classic tome on pilgrimage, Cousineau’s book gives a comprehensive summary of what pilgrimage means. He suggests the idea of pilgrimage is more than just going to a traditional site. Pilgrimage could land someone anywhere on the planet — not just Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago (for Christians). Cousineau supplies in two hundred pages all the well-known quotes and citations about pilgrimage. So, I regard this book as a go-to resource for finding anything ever written on the theme of going somewhere to find meaning. I particularly liked how he helped the reader define for themselves what kind of pilgrimage to make, based on the reader’s own passion, longing and need to go somewhere. He makes the reflection both personal and historically sound, and suggests practical ways of making travel something more than just being a tourist.
5. Eca de Queiroz, “The Relic”, London: Dedalus, 2003.
Originally published in Portugese in 1887, this fiction is a European classic. It tells the story of a young university student who pretends at being pious and devoted to his Christian practice, motivated only by impressing his rich aunt so he would inherit the family fortune upon her death. Set in Lisbon, “The Relic” is about the journey of a man who crosses boundaries of moral behaviour in his secret/true life but shows off in order to please and meet the expectations of others. After a fantastical trip to Jerusalem to find a relic to bring home to his aunt, our hero experiences the folly of his hypocrisy. And, through the pain of defeat and untold embarrassment, he learns in the end to hold both the good and bad in his life.
6. Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation”, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2016.
My favourite author/mentor, Richard Rohr continues in this book to make the case for authentic, real, and healing experiences for men in Western society. Drawing from cross-cultural and historical examples, Rohr describes what happens in male initiation rites, and what is hoped for through these transformational rites. It should be no secret that men suffer emotionally in our culture that give little space for men to be real, vulnerable and honest. Rohr reflects on Scripture and describes what is, in my reading, a summary of the Gospel: Only by accepting what is real, painful and honest about one’s life, only by entering the Paschal Mystery of Christ crucified and risen in one’s own life, can men rise into the resurrection of new life and hope.
7. Beldon C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
This was my favourite book on my sabbatical. A dense read (I had to re-read sections), Lane offers a historical overview of mystic/contemplative tradition, citing the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Cassion, Julian of Norwich and other desert mothers and fathers. He also emphasizes the importance of geography in expressing one’s journey of faith, comparing for example the experiences of hiking up Mount Sinai compared to Mount Tabor. He makes the case for a healthy spirituality that includes both apophatic (no words, letting go, release, loss, mystery, disorder, contemplation, silence, solitude, stillness) and kataphatic (language, community, structure, order, images, action) modes of relating with God. You can’t have one without the other. Observing regular contemplative forms of prayer leads to a renewed engagement with community. Essentially, nevertheless, this is a book describing the process of grief. Lane writes about this stage in his midlife dealing with the loss and deaths of his parents, and how the experience of the nursing home and caring for his dying mother contributed to his inner and outer journeys. And his healing.
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