Sunday, June 23, 2013

(Probably the Last) Book Review (for a while): Answering the Contemplative Call

What follows is a brief review of Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2013; 168 pp.; USD $16.95) for the Speakeasy network

It's no simple task to present contemplative, even mystical spirituality as palatable and non-threatening to a mixed literary audience; but author/speaker/spiritual director Carl McColman meets the challenge head-on in his latest book. The result isn't quite a home run, but it's certainly a stand-up triple: he strikes and often maintains a careful balance of introducing ideas that would be new to many of his readers, without estranging either the readers or the ideas themselves.

As his subtitle indicates, McColman invests deeply in the motif of the spiritual-contemplative life as a journey, and this motif governs the three-part structure of his book. In part one, "Recognizing the Call," he invites readers to join in the journeying: having gently introduced the thought that the mystical path is (perhaps surprisingly) inclusive, open to anyone, he now unpacks the link between mysticism and the mysteries of life -- and of God. He goes on to acknowledge, quite sensitively, the existential and/or experiential problems that some readers may have with the God of the Bible, but he also responds to such issues with a well-phrased apologetic of human longing as a response to God's own longing love for people (11). He spends much of this section on the need to "wake up," to recognize our longing, the journey it requires, and the fact that God seeks us even more passionately than we seek God. At times McColman's language is wonderfully subversive, as when he writes of submission, "my American allergy to surrendering control may need some recalibration" with respect to the infinite mystery of God (19); while it would have been fascinating to see where such thoughts would lead him, that is not his primary focus. He retells the mystical awakenings of Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton as illustrations of epiphany (a term which he helpfully defines, though other words like prevenient and ineffable go unexplained). And, speaking of language, he takes the time to reclaim words that he thinks important for the mystical quest, including beholding as a reflective response to divine mystery.

Parts two and three, "Preparing for the Journey" and "Embarking on the Adventure," map out the path -- to the extent that there is a path at all -- of the calling toward God and a responsive vocation of loving God, others, and self (47; rooted in biblical texts such as Mark 12:28-34). With the chapter "Do Your Research," McColman encourages his readers to explore the tradition(s) of Christian mystical literature, but not at the expense of cultivating their own spiritual growth. He also insists, wisely, that finding a spiritual director (and, beyond that, a supportive community) and pursuing spiritual disciplines are vital priorities; it is unfortunate, however, that his discussion neglects foundational voices like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, or more recent conversation partners like Ruth Haley Barton. McColman's defense of his preference for explicitly Christian spirituality is, er, spirited, and thoughtfully expressed (though I'm not sure that he's correct that the many biblical stories he names here will seem familiar if the reader has "been attending a Church for more than a year or so" [80], given how widespread biblical illiteracy is...). And his explanations of kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God, of the practice of lectio divina, and of kenosis (self-emptying, as in Philippians 2:5-11) comprise the high points of the book.

McColman excels at making complex and potentially off-putting ideas simple and user-friendly. He shows special skill in recapitulation, whether he restates important concepts himself, or allows the voices of past contemplative greats to facilitate such reviews. There are moments where catering to a mixed audience begins to work against him, as when he says in his discourse on kenosis, "I rather suspect that there is an Angel of Kenosis hovering over each one of us" (137). Statements like these certainly provoke reflection, but also risk distracting readers from his main points. Fortunately, these statements are relatively rare, and detract little from this otherwise helpful book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: Engn

Holy cow, three blog posts in the space of a month.  But this one's just to draw attention to a review I've just written elsewhere -- in the "Early Reviewers" facet of LibraryThing (the D-I-Y library cataloging site that we use at the Scaffold).  If you're looking for a way to get your books better organized, check out LibraryThing; if you're looking for a good novel for your eReader, try Engn, which I review here.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Help Me Be

What follows is a brief review of Dale C. Fredrickson's book, Help Me Be: Praying in Poems (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013; 48 pp.) for Speakeasy. For those interested in learning more about the book and its author, I've pasted in links from a Speakeasy email at the conclusion of the review.

Watch a video of Dale Fredrickson giving voice to one of his own poems, and you'll see at once that he's gifted with words as well as with their delivery. The earnestness of his poetic prayers -- now aching, now joyful -- comes through with enviable clarity and conviction.  Unfortunately, not all of that translates well onto the written page.  Not that that should necessarily dissuade one from buying the book; there's much to savor and digest here.  I'm going to be adding the book to the collection at the Scaffold, and I can easily see how Fredrickson's words would nourish the prayer life and language of anyone who hears or reads them.  I'm only saying that they're more nourishing when spoken or heard than when read (which shouldn't surprise us, as the same is true of so much of Scripture, not least the psalms and other prayers).

For each of its three sections, Help Me Be borrows and paraphrases the categories of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann's Spirituality of the Psalms: "Orientation (Life's Good)," "Disorientation (Life's Not Good)," and "New Orientation (Life's Good Again)." A richly textured painting by Lindsay McLean helps to introduce and set the tone of each section. The standout poems of the first section include "You Amaze us God," with its profound reflection on the Incarnation; the title poem, the cadence of which corresponds to its Trinitarian focus; and the eager, jubilee-evoking abandon of "This Is The Year." The darker section two features moments where the poet's spoken-word skills leap off the page, as in "Stuck," a piece that echoes Psalm 40 and other biblical cries for help: "You must remake this: / You can courageously face this / You can learn to embrace this / You can trust the grace in this" (22). The third, re-orienting section celebrates renewal and resurrection, turning Easter into a verb in "God Of New Life" (33), citing and rewriting Scriptures such as Isaiah 66:13 in "God the Good Mother" (36-37), and juxtaposing memorable images of baptism and evangelism in "Message in a Bottle." In offering new ways of phrasing age-old, ever-new expressions of prayer, Fredrickson is clearly at home.

As I noted above, however, some of his work is hurt by the transition from spoken word to printed page. The problems are largely limited to inconsistent editing and unclear employment of language, but they're so pervasive that they often intrude on one's enjoyment of the poetry itself.  There are punctuation issues (and a few typesetting ones, too) from the introduction onward, and Fredrickson's overuse of capitalization is frequently distracting; instead of drawing attention to particular words, capital letters become unremarkable, ubiquitous, as in the lines, "Divine embers start smoking Dazzling Dreams, Deep Dimensions, / Dynamic, Durable, Delightful, Drawing" (40). I found myself stumbling over homophonic and typographic errors such as "I want a will that wills you, / Half a heart won't due" (15), or the evident confusion over the distinction between breath and breathe, or aid and aide (19, 30). These wouldn't be apparent in spoken delivery, so why risk confusing readers with them in the printed version? One hopes that this volume of stirring poetry proves popular enough to be re-issued by a major publisher, and that this might present an opportunity for Fredrickson and others to revise his poems again so that they can shine a little brighter.

Dale's website.
Dale's spoken word on YouTube.
Dale's messages on Vimeo.
Help Me Be on Amazon:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Living on Consecrated Time

Writing is hard.  Writing consistently is much harder.

I'm sitting between flights at O'Hare, feeling like a zombie after yesterday's stomach flu, but that's okay here -- most people look like zombies at airports.  I'll be better tomorrow, probably, and better still the day after that.

But my writing, and my writing habits, may not be better, unless I do something about it.

It's two days later, and I'm feeling almost myself again.  I've been thinking and praying over this for a while now.  Here's where things stand: I've had some success over the past several months with my writing, with three short articles published in a popular magazine; several papers and workshop presentations given (which often/eventually become articles or book chapters) and several more to come over the rest of this year; and ideas that continue to percolate in my fiction writing, which still comes in fits and starts but continues to be both fun and rewarding (aesthetically, if not yet financially).  And other good, sustaining things are happening, too, as the plans for the spiritual direction and retreat center that Karen and I call Lectio House are growing well.  But my blogging (obviously) and my literary journalling (trust me) are occasional at best, and everything I've tried this year to make more consistent time for more consistent writing has been, for all intents and purposes, a bust.

It's time for that last part to change.  At a particularly frustrated point a few weeks ago, I assessed all this, looked at my calendar, and admitted to myself that I wouldn't have any time to make effective changes until after our recent (local) move and a conference that followed shortly afterward.  So I picked today, June 7, as a day to start making the aforementioned effective changes.  A moment to question my own commitment to writing (and more broadly to study as a spiritual discipline; see my earlier posts on a rule of life).  A one-day reminder to myself that I am living on what we might call consecrated time.

Consecrated time.  Time set apart for a holy purpose.  Time to ask (often, and honestly) whether I'm doing the things well that God has made me to do.  Time to write, without neglecting my relationships or my responsibilities -- but without letting either of those things become idols, either.  Time to make the most of whatever time I have left on this earth, refusing to let that become more cliche than it already is.

Time to get started (all over again, "for reals," etc.).

Think I'm not serious?  (That's at least partly rhetorical.  And self-addressed.)  Then watch this space.  And watch me.  While you're at it, read Philippians 3:16-17.  (That's somewhat self-addressed, too.)

Time to get going.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Rule of Life (Part II)

Back to Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology again, as I continue my Lenten goal of formulating a rule of life: retaining a "communal aspect of reading and listening" helps us "become more fully members of the community of the Scripture" (p. 164).  That, in turn, is a distillation of what Chan's said earlier: "reading the Scripture is not just a pretext for preaching a nicely crafted sermon; it is a traditioning process. The flip side of reading is listening, and listening is no less a communal activity" (116).

Helping others (and myself) to rediscover that "traditioning," to "re-tradition," is (I think) one place where the different facets of my calling conjoin.  On the one hand, this isn't news; it's just the latest way of saying something that I've been working out since my junior year of undergrad or thereabouts (the first time I remember someone naming my gift of hospitality, as such).  On the other hand, to finally have a synthetic handle for this thing that I do -- and that Karen and I do together -- is a valuable thing.  (If you haven't read what Madeleine L'Engle and Michael Knowles each have to say about how vital a name is, you should.)  One could do worse than to say that "re-traditioning" holds one's rule of life together...and that in my case, study and hospitality, and the inward and outward cultivation of reading and listening in community, are some of re-traditioning's principal facets.

Maybe I'll walk around with that for a few days.  If you are predisposed toward prayer, pray for me (and us together) as I do so -- and as we pray through some potentially major vocational decisions, coming up over the next month.  And if you'd like to be involved in that conversation, let me know.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Rule of Life (Part 1)

With this year's Lenten campaigns -- "give it up for Lent" and "Fastbook" (fasting from Facebook), to name two -- frequenting my Facebook feed and probably yours too, I've been thinking and praying about what I might do for Lent that would be more than a self-help project or the liturgical equivalent of a New Year's resolution.  

(I should say at this point that I do think it's a good thing that Advent and Lent are beginning to receive broader attention within the church; I'm just concerned that this will prove faddish, that each season will be sucked in by the marketing power of the not-so-holidays that Christmas and Easter have become.  But I digress.  Obviously.)

What I've arrived at is to set a rule of life.  This is a practice from the ancient church, one most of us associate (maybe too much so) with the monastic tradition, partly because that's where the most famous examples are found, as in the Benedictine Rule or the Franciscan Rule.  Simply put, whether folks were living apart for Jesus as hermits or in community, they needed rules in place to make sure their lives were consistently pointing in Jesus' direction.

As interest in missional living and monastic practice grows here in Hamilton (see my article for TrueCity about one such local initiative, here) and other places in North America, the construction of a rule of life is becoming more popular, too.  And if I want to assemble a rule of life (both individually and with Karen) during Lent, I need to read a little bit more of what's being written on such rule formation these days.  But for the moment, I'm still chewing on what a text from a course in my master's program has to say, as it places the rule in the context of systematic theology.  Simon Chan (not to be confused with the current bestseller, Francis Chan), in his Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (IVP, 1998), writes, "Embracing a rule of life means allowing our lives to be reconstituted by this new pattern...a rule does not mean that a greater part of our time is taken up with performing religious duties. Rather, the rhythm that a good rule establishes helps us maintain our spiritual focus" (190-91).  Chan has lots of other good stuff to say about discerning a personal and a "common" (communal) rule; as I've read here and elsewhere that part of rule formation is determining which spiritual disciplines are (or should be) primary in one's life, the one other quote I'll cite right now falls under Chan's thoughts on "Guidelines for spiritual reading" as a discipline.  In response to common neglect of the habit of careful, meditative reading skills, he argues that the church "could be a vital re-forming agent, but it has to re-create itself as a reading-listening community" (162-63).  That resonates, in part because of potential ministry some plans that Karen and I are praying through.  And I will let that and other thoughts resonate as we continue through Lent.  My first instinct is to say that helping the church to "re-create itself as a reading-listening community" describes two of the disciplines that I already know that I need to recognize as core values in my Rule: study and hospitality.  But we'll see what some more prayer produces on this Lenten journey.