Archive for May, 2007

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Seek the Silences with Thomas Merton

May 15, 2007

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Charles Ringma, professor, writer and missionary to the streets of South-East Asia, knows what it is to engage with current issues that confront Christian believers committed to both the sacred and to the secular, to spirituality and to service, to community and to Christ.

In conversation with the writings of Trappist monk and contemplative, Thomas Merton, Ringma reflects – in helpfully short, bite-sized bits – upon an enriching selection of topics. They range from issues of self-identity, to the search for ultimate meaning; from friendship and community to a quest for transformative action. He takes us towards a consideration of being and hope as a search for an eschatological vision.

In a rich, conversational style that never shouts but always engages, Ringma offers a spirituality that does not retreat to the desert but treads the city sidewalk seeking meaningful ways to engage the questions it provokes.

Ringma provides a thoughtful, stimulating and timely primer on the prolific writings of Thomas Merton in a contemporary way that captures an accurate flavor of Merton’s depth of wisdom, sanity and grace.

This book will enchant and move you to meaningful moments of spiritual reflection showing you new ways of being in a world that looks and feels too out of control.

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Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and a Writer

May 15, 2007

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When Thomas Merton retreated from the civilized mainstream to enter the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, an unknowing observer might view his spiritual struggle as ending, becoming completely lost in the routine of monastic life, its repetition and overt acceptance of spiritual discipline. The battle against personal desire versus group obedience to higher powers beyond flesh and blood one would assume to have been a forgone conclusion. Merton brilliantly shows us, however, that within the souls of men the battle still rages. And it is how he dealt with that struggle that makes this book so marvelous. His caring and loving approach to life and others is tempered with griping about the choir’s proficiency, the demands of writing within the monastic framework, the lack of understanding by superiors and comrades in spiritual arms concerning his shifting spiritual needs, for solitude, quiet and letting God sort things out for him, vice pushing his own, highly tempered will into the whirling mixture that made up this complex, brilliant man. The writing is first rate, his descriptions of the surrounding countryside are marvelously genuine as is his analyis of himself and his motives. (like to move onto a more strict, Carthusian order to reach the apotheosis of perfect contemplation). This book is a good building block for future reading of this author and I would recommend reading the entire biography/journals before even wandering into the not so clearly written efforts of Merton’s theological books. Many thanks to the publisher for finally making such great writing available!!

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Spiritual Direction and Meditation

May 11, 2007

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This slender but powerful volume is divided into two fifty-page essays. The first discusses spiritual direction and is aimed mainly at the religious; the second covers the practice of meditation and speaks more to the lay reader.

Merton’s commentary on direction is incisive as always. He has a nasty habit of confronting me with my human weaknesses just when I think I’ve made a little spiritual progress. My spirituality must not be compartmentalized, it must encompass my every thought and action: holiness is not simply a matter of going to church every Sunday, it’s how I brush my teeth. Further, my spiritual life must not become enslaved to form; it is all about substance. If the essence of my being is committed to the Holy Spirit, if love for God infuses my every thought and action, I will discern my vocation and conduct my life in harmony with His will. Certainly, a lay person may need guidance in this discernment, but for a religious, whose vocation is spiritual “perfection”, it is imperative. Without proper guidance, and a lot of it, proper formation is impossible and the result is often a lost soul. Merton explains what a spiritual director should be, and perhaps more important, what he should not be. Very few of us can discern God’s will in solitude-most of us need to talk things out, even if, as Merton points out, it is only a matter of hearing confirmation of what we already know in our heart.

Merton’s commentary on meditation includes everything from explaining the true goal of meditation (union with God) to teaching the basics (e.g., it’s best to meditate when seated). His primer is must reading for anyone interested in meditation, or anyone wishing to improve his/her prayer life in general.

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The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice

May 11, 2007

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In 1989, Jesuit activist John Dear was demonstrating in Washington with a group of homeless people when he was arrested. While waiting in jail he discovered that he had a slim volume by Henri Nouwen, recently given to him by a Trappist monk friend, in his coat pocket. Dear began reading it and was hooked. He subsequently wrote to Nouwen and so began a correspondence of faith and friendship that lasted until Nouwen’s death in 1996.

In `The Road to Peace’, Dear presents an under-appreciated aspect of Henri Nouwen, the dimension of social responsibility that Dear sees as underpinning all of his writings, and was a significant part of his life. Dear’s collection gathers for the first time nearly all of Nouwen’s writings on peace, social justice, and disarmament.

We learn enough about Dear in his 25-page introduction to know that he himself is a deeply committed and experienced social activist. (Following an anti-nuclear Ploughshare demonstration, for instance, he spent eight months in a US jail, and a further five months under house arrest.) So when Dear says that social justice is a key dimension of Nouwen’s spirituality and that he is an inspiring and challenging writer for social activists, he believe him.

A key part of Dear’s introduction is a well-composed account of Nouwen’s life, which also reveals the extent to which social concerns were a part of his life as well as his thought. To give one example, following an impromptu visit to Nicaragua, Nouwen undertook a six-week tour of the US denouncing the nation’s involvement in the contra-war, which culminated in a bomb threat against the writer.

Nouwen’s writings challenge his readers to recognize that solidarity with, and action on behalf of, our wounded world is an essential part of spirituality, while activists are challenged to deepen their inner contemplative life, without which they are vulnerable to despair.

`The Road to Peace’ includes a number of previously unpublished texts, most notably a 50-page `Spirituality of Peacemaking’, a! s well as a talk on AIDS, interviews with the writer, his reflections on the legacies of Thomas Merton and Oscar Romero, and writings on his life with handicapped persons at L’Arche.

`The Road to Peace’ is a substantial, significant and original addition to the Nouwen corpus that will be widely welcomed.

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The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

May 11, 2007

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This is a wonderfully inspiring book documenting Henri’s journey from Ivy League professor to the priest of a community of people with severe disabilities. His story reminds us that the crux of the Christian life is not flashiness and worldly success, but that it comes from being a servant to the needy and poor of our world. As Henri shares his fears, anxieties, and triumphs of his journey, we are encouraged to face the things keeping us from fully giving our life to the poor (be it mentally, spiritually, financially, emotionally, etc.) and/or are encouraged in the work we are already doing with people society has cast aside. If the 11th chapter of Hebrews was rewritten, Henri Nouwen would be another example of someone who showed great faith in God by taking God at his word and going to a new place where he knew not what would happen to him. As a special education teacher who is involved in the community of people with disabilities, I found Henri to be a true inspiration and encouragement to continue ministering to–and certainly being ministered to by people who have disabilities. This book would be an encouragement to anyone who wants their life to reflect some of the most central teachings of Jesus.

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Life of The Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World

May 11, 2007

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Life of the Beloved is among the final books published by Nouwen, and in that way is kind of a culmination of much of his life and thought and is thought by many to be his “flagship” work. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than this. Reading this book as a Christian can be a mind and, hence, life altering experience. It was written to some of Henri’s non-Christian friends about how much God loves them (which is certainly true!). And from the way Henri’s life consistently pointed towards Jesus and the Gospel, I am sure that his friendship, love, and words to them in conversation were used by God for the good of the hearers. On that note, I would caution using this book alone as something to give to your non-Christian friends; because as Henri used it, it is best backed up by your life, love for your friends, and pointing them towards Jesus in your day to day life, and not as a gift without a relationship.

The book is clear, and ultra-concise (you could probably read it in a day or two); yet, the message, of how to live as the Beloved of God amidst a world where there are lies about your identity at every turn, could not be more fundamental to how a Christian lives their life. I wholeheartedly recommend and in fact strongly encourage all Christians to read this book.

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Only Necessary Thing

May 11, 2007

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The Only Necessary Thing is not the usual book on how to pray and what makes prayer so important. It is a collection of a man’s writings on his passionate believe in the Saviour, and therefore, his conversations with Him. It gives a glimpse of how Henri Nouwen himself prayed and what is prayer to him. But never one time in the book does he come across as didactic. Instead, the book weaves together the essence of prayer and life in a contemplative and meditative manner. One can almost chew and “re-chew” through Nouwen’s sober, frank and yet deep contemplation on his God and his conversations with Him.

Definitely, the credit of this book must also go to Wendy Greer, who has an excellent grasp of Nouwen’s writings, and undoubtedly, her same passion for his God. She has put together Nouwen’s best essays and writings in categories and ways that enables one to walk through each day reading snippets of the writings with a sense of continuity as well as of substance to meditate and chew for the day.

The Only Necessary Thing is a journey to the core of prayer, and that prayer is journey to the core of life.