pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: books for the soul

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

IMG_0615

you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments  you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?

it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.

my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!

i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.

nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.

i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.

i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:

…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.

or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:

Some Glad Morning

One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.

The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.

It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.

or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:

What do you think?

That God has abandoned you,
especially now?
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without encouraging,
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.

how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?

(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)

a consideration of saints

Unknown-1

long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.

it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).

but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.

only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.

the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”

the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.

i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.

on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:

Manual for the Would-Be Saint

by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.

The second: The air calls us home.

Third, we must fill the bowls of others

before we drain our own wells dry.

The fourth is the dark night; the fifth

a subtle scent of smoke and pine.

The sixth is awareness of our duties,

the burnt offering of our own pride.

Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.

The ninth takes time: it is to discover

what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)

please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…

what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?

p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….) 

book for the soul: sister helen prejean’s “river of fire”

IMG_0353

i’ve been waiting to tell you about this one, one that pulled me in from the very first pages.

here’s how it begins:

“They killed a man with fire one night. 

Strapped him in an oaken chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead.

His killing was a legal act.

No religious leaders protested his killing that night. 

But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. 

And what I saw set my soul on fire–

a fire that burns in me still.”

that’s the very beginning of Sister Helen Prejean’s fiery baptism into her role as the Dead Man Walking nun who, ever since that night in the killing chamber, has devoted her days to fighting mightily and gutsily against the death penalty. and as she writes a few paragraphs later in the preface to her latest book, River of Fire, a memoir at once hilarious, soulful, and intimately detailed, recounting the spiritual journey that drew her to the executioner’s cell that night: “Once when I was inside the Louisiana death house awaiting an execution, Captain John Rabelais, a guard, asked, ‘What’s a nun doing in a place like this?'”

River of Fire is her answer to that question. and it’s as soulful a book as i’ve read in a rather long while, and a glorious read to boot! as i didn’t write in my review for the Chicago Tribune, i wound up hauling that book wherever i went for a few days, carving out hours and space in which to sidle up beside Sister Helen, who came to feel like the nun i didn’t have in fourth grade. oh, i loved sister leonora mary, but she wielded a sharp-tipped pointer, kept every hair on her head in hiding, and sure never told me the tales of the loves in her life, nor referred to herself as “a sort of free-range chicken version of a nun.”

sister helen is, by her own admission, highly free-range. and that’s how i best like my chicken — and, apparently, my nuns.

oh, lordy, to sit down beside her in real time…who knows the tales that she’d tell in the confessional of kitchen-table tête-à-tête?!

turns out, two fine friends here at this very table know her well (one is and one was a sister of the congregation of st. joseph, the very order of nuns to which Sister Helen belongs, and one is spelled out in the shortlist of acknowledgements at the end of River of Fire). both can — and animatedly do — unspool a skein of Sister Helen stories: how she shows up at sundown on the front stoop fully equipped and raring to go for a long night of story-swapping; how she holds any audience anywhere utterly spell-bound and never brings so much as a note to the podium; how in real life she’s the real deal — every bit the iconoclast and rabble-rouser she seems on the pages of her books.

before i plop down my tribune review, i’ll add this one community service announcement: sister helen will be at The Well Spirituality Center in lagrange on wednesday, october 30 at 7 p.m. (click the link above, and secure your $25 seat in the room). without notes, of course, she’ll be telling tales from the pages of her life and her books. and, as she does in her book, she’ll leave you laughing one instant, and covered in goosebumps the next, so utterly stirring is her brand of free-range wisdom and soulful epiphany.

here’s the review, as it ran in the tribune:

‘River of Fire,’ Sister Helen Prejean’s new memoir, is as irreverent as it is wise

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 02, 2019

‘River of Fire’

By Helen Prejean, Random House, 289 pages, $27

Sister Helen Prejean is known as the nun from New Orleans who wrote prayerfully and piercingly about witnessing death-row electrocutions in a Louisiana prison. That her book about her experience, “Dead Man Walking,” rocket-blasted to best-seller status, spawned a movie, an Academy Award-winning performance, a play, and an opera that’s been produced on five continents, says something undeniable about her storytelling powers.

Prejean has done it again in her new memoir, “River of Fire.” While the subject here — her own spiritual evolution — might not be as harrowing as what she terms “government killings,” Prejean’s capacity for truth-telling, for holding little back, makes for can’t-put-it-down page-turning.

A truer title might have been “Inside the Nunnery: 1,001 Things You Were Afraid To Ask.” And Prejean tells plenty. We start innocently enough, reading about life beneath a nun’s habit of so much black serge she felt “mummy-wrapped.” She recounts the story of a nun friend once mistaken in a fabric store for a “bolt of black material,” so voluminous was the to-the-floor flesh-masking swirl of standard-issue black wool. Prejean holds back little in detailing a seven-year relationship with a hard-drinking priest, a celibate bond, to be sure, but one charged with more than some of us might ever have imagined vis-a-vis our fourth-grade nuns.

But Prejean isn’t practically a household name in social justice circles and beyond because of her knack for titillation. She oozes hard-won wisdom, soulful epiphanies, and wraps it all in breathtaking humility that shrinks any distance between author and reader. The whole way through, “River of Fire” reads as if a tête-à-tête on the schoolhouse steps, where one sits beside a beloved, much-wiser soulmate and sops up a lifetime’s worth of lessons learned, often the hard and roundabout way.

Most of all, Prejean cuts through church-preach. Time and again, she zeroes in unswervingly on the essence of radical non-conformist Jesus, the one who preached love, the one who reached out to those on the ragged margins of society.

And she’s laugh-out-loud funny. And irreverent. Sometimes, both at once. Writing about the saints — Joan of Arc in particular, the saint who was “burned at the stake on charges of heresy and the unpardonable sin of cross-dressing” — Prejean writes matter-of-factly: “I just know I’d never be a good martyr. I burned my hand once making brownies and I nursed my wound and talked about my wound and held up my poor burned hand for all to see and sympathize with. Burn at the stake? For something as trivial as holding beliefs considered to be a little unorthodox? Be burned alive for that?”

Don’t mistake her narrative hijinks or her yarn-spinning capacities as sideshows to dilute an otherwise indelible confessional and testament to the power of a life devoted to God and godliness. Rather, it’s the pure joy of reading Prejean — her gift for knocking herself off any saintly pedestal, making the reader believe that we might all leap into her river of holy fire — that makes this a spiritual work of high and radiant order.

“I have a hunch I’m going to be waking up till the moment I die,” she writes. And in so writing, the good sister opens up for all of us the doorway into our own humble stumblings toward what can only be termed the lifelong walk toward holiness.

Her parting words, almost as if she’s leaning in, there on the schoolhouse step, where you’ve now been sitting side-by-side for 286 pages, as if imploring one last life-or-death time: “I urge you to get in the conversation on human rights and stay in it. It’s the only way the arc of the universe bends toward justice.”

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

and what fine reads have you read of late?

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

ice-raid-kids-01-wjtv-jc-190808_hpMain_4x3_992

magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

IMG_0092

this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

special edition: book for the soul

IMG_2140

how unlike me to post on a thursday, but i’d already had thoughts about tomorrow, and didn’t want this latest book for the soul to get lost. i’ve been waiting weeks and weeks for this to run in the chicago tribune, because i can’t post here till my book for the soul reviews run there. at long last! i’ve been dying to tell you more about this most amazing soulful “urban monk,” christine valters paintner, who is among the most soulful souls i’ve run across in my kitchen table literary travels, where i follow tributaries and estuaries, one after another, never knowing where one will lead, never knowing what amazement i will bump into. i’d been reading another one of her books, “the soul’s slow ripening: 12 celtic practices for seeking the sacred” — mentioned here — when suddenly from the daily mail there tumbled this newest collection of her poems. call it serendipity, or call it “the gods smiled.” (i’ll take the smile…) i promise if you click over to abbey of the arts, and poke around for a while, you will be restored, refreshed, refueled, and ready to tie on your hiking shoes and head for the celtic ruins of wherever christine leads you. my dream, as of a few months ago, is to one day trek the wild ancient places of western ireland with christine. i feel drawn to her sacred discipline, to her profound and soulful poetry and wisdoms. i hope you do too.

‘Dreaming of Stones’: Poetry collection offers spiritual solace

W4WDZ2OUV5B7XAPXCZWLXRYA2A

By BARBARA MAHANY | CHICAGO TRIBUNE |

Dreaming of Stones: By Christine Valters Paintner, Paraclete, 96 pages, $18

To enter the pages of Christine Valters Paintner’s “Dreaming of Stones” feels akin to wandering the undulations of Celtic wilds, the barren landscape that cloisters timeless secrets and truths. It’s not hard to imagine ancient ruins off in the mist-drenched distance. Nor to hear the cry of North Atlantic winds, sweeping across moor and mountain. It’s haunting and it’s beautiful.

Most of all, it’s to find yourself at home in a place you’ve never been — the very definition of soulful retreat.

And so it is in this first full poetry collection by Paintner, a writer, painter and Benedictine oblate who moved to the west coast of Ireland in 2012. She now calls herself the abbess — or “urban monk and part-time hermit” — of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and global ecumenical community that combines contemplative practice and the arts.

No less than Richard Rohr, the best-selling spiritualist and Franciscan friar, writes that Paintner’s poems “have both a mystical and earthly sensibility, drawing us to the transcendent as well as the immanent presence of the divine.” Paintner herself writes that “poetry is language carved down to its essence,” and she calls these 80 poems “little love notes to the world.” Love notes of the soul, perhaps.

Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.

The poems here are distillations of the most enduring wisdoms — love, hope, heartache, the unfolding of time — penned with a painstaking eye on the earthly. Carved out of the raw stuff of existence, especially in these troubled times, these dispatches offer safe harbor for taking stock, seeing the sacred, absorbing the solace.

And as with all the finest poetry, it’s the unwritten volumes beyond the words that hold our lingering attention. To enter these poems is to slow time, to pause long enough to grasp what might otherwise have escaped us.

The poems here might as well be prayers — many of them anyway. Others put words to lasting truths.

In one of the collection’s six sections, in a poem titled “St. Gobnait and the Place of Her Resurrection,” Paintner writes: “Is there a place for each of us, / where we no longer yearn to be elsewhere? / Where our work is to simply soften, / wait, and pay close attention?”

Or, pages later, in “St. Brigid and the Fruit Tree,” this: “Your tears splashed onto / cold stony earth, ringing out / like bells calling monks to prayer, / like the river breaking open to / the wide expanse of sea. … There will always be more grief / than we can bear … Life is tidal, rising and receding, / its long loneliness, its lush loveliness, / no need to wish for low tide when / the banks are breaking.”

In her afterword, Paintner writes of her devotion to the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke and “the way he wrote about the God of darkness and mystery, the God who loves the questions rather than the answers.” She shares that inquiry. And it’s her hope, she writes, that those who find their way through “Dreaming of Stones” find “a moment of sanctuary” in its pages.

The poet’s prayers, then, are answered. This collection — probing the mystery and the darkness, embracing the god of question not answer — indeed carves out sanctuary in a most turbulent landscape, amid these wild, wild times.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

 

let the page turn begin…

summer read

the summer porch is back in business, the sacred art of staring through screens into the first light of dawn and the lingering hours of twilight into starlight and moonlight. there’s a big old wicker chair in there, once dragged in from the hand-me-down bin, one pointed straight into the white pine and the little bird house on a pole where all day long the sparrows or chickadees flit and dart and chatter. i’ve taken up my position therein, and as many hours as the day will allow, that’s where you’re most likely to find me.

even this weekend. by day’s end, long after nightfall, both boys i birthed will be asleep in this old house (thunderstorms, don’t dare fudge our flight paths). the older one is flying home late tonight to be here when the not-so-little-anymore one walks across the graduation stage on sunday. it’s a weekend that’ll be packed with as much high-altitude soaring as we — and a host of jubilant high-schoolers — can possibly pack in, but just as emphatically i plan on planting myself for a few long hours of soulful conversation out there in the room on the verge of the garden. there’s a whole lot of catch-up to catch up on, the sort best done when knees rub against knees, when the folds of skin on someone’s face are squinched or softened in real time, right before your eyes.

i admittedly won’t be doing much turning of pages this weekend — not the literal kind, anyway. in the midst of a real-life page turn, bound pages are usually put aside. so while i dash off to fill the fridge, pin up the welcome home and happy graduation signs, and pick up the rented white dinner jacket (it’s new trier, and that’s the way they’ve done graduation since at least 1936), i am leaving you with the summer reading roundup i wrote for the chicago tribune.

it apparently ran in the paper a couple weeks ago (saturday, may 18), but for the life of me i can’t find it, so here tis, in its original form. my lovely editor asked me to pick three books i’d want to slow read this summer, three that might especially stir the soul, so i went with three whose glorious magnificent writers are no longer among us. mary oliver and w.s. merwin both died within the past few months — mary O. in january, merwin in march. brian doyle died just two years ago; he was only 60.

i promise you a sumptuous summer — at least in the reading corner — should you crack open any one of these…

Pause to reflect on three greatssoul books summer

By Barbara Mahany

There are those for whom summer reading is synonymous with plot-thick page-turners, guzzled beachside or poolside, covers splattered with sunscreen. For others, the indolent season takes an opposite tack: it’s all about catch-up, savoring deep dives into the life lists of authors who’ve long been our polestars. Especially when death brings the coda, in the wake of a beloved author’s last penned utterance. It’s in the spirit of relishing these now-extinguished luminaries’ earlier works, titles forgotten or celebrated, that these three collections constitute a summer’s holy trinity…

The Essential W.S. Merwin

By W.S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon, 200 pages, $18

The fittingest way to fill the silence that followed the death in March of W.S. Merwin, the late great Poet Laureate of the United States, who had received every major literary accolade, including two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, is to crack open the collection of his poems and prose deemed “Essential.” 

Apt title, indeed, as this definitive distillation traces a poetic legacy that’s been said to have “changed the landscape of American letters,” a compilation spanning seven decades of Merwin’s often spare unpunctuated poetry, translations, and lesser-known prose narratives. 

Merwin was, is, and always will be essential. 

“Through daily practice and attention, [Merwin] has created an incredible model for a way of existing on earth,” writes Michael Wiegers, editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press, who was tasked with culling nearly 50 books of Merwin poetry and another eight books of his prose. “His poems have defined for future generations what is possible in poetry and in life.”

That truth resonates through these breathtaking pages, be it Merwin’s urgent pleas to attend to this imperiled planet, or his heart-piercing excavations of the unconscious, as in his miracle of a three-line poem, “Separation,” exposing the raw edge of grief. It’s poetry turned saving grace: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.” 

Poring slowly over these pages—essential as they are—just might be the wisest prescriptive, balm for the soul, in the wake of the poet’s final absence. 

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings

By Mary Oliver, DaCapo, 120 pages, $16

The January death of Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, high priestess of seeing the sacred in the natural landscape—be it weeds poking through asphalt, or a goosefish stranded at low tide—prompted a great reprise of her most memorized lines, among them, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

But her 2004 “Long Life: Essays and Other Writings,” a slim and lesser-referenced volume, holds a cache more than worthy of slow reading, pen in hand for all the underlining and asterisk-ing that begs to be inked. Poems, Oliver calls her “little alleluias,” a “way of offering praise to the world.” Prose, she explains, is more cautious, flowing forward “bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotion.” 

You’ll find those alleluias sprinkled throughout “Long Life”—and they will take your breath away, even if only a single line, such as this untitled dab: “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.”

But it’s the essays, slowly unspooling, that might hold you in rapt attention, even on a lazy summer’s afternoon. Take, for instance, her introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great New England Transcendentalist, whom Oliver refers to as “a failed churchman,” as she extols his genius, and reminds us “the heart’s spiritual awakening is the true work of our lives.”

Traversing the few-square-mile landscape of her Cape Cod environs, Oliver finds beauty—and wisdom and prayer—in the quotidian: the town dump, the rain, her mud-caked dog. She never fails to see the sacred. And she declares, almost as anthem: “I walk in the world to love it.”

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary

By Brian Doyle, Sorin Books, 192 pages, $14.95

This might be the book to reach for on the rainiest, gloomiest of summer days. For it will soon have you humming. It’s joy, it’s whimsy, it’s bursting-at-the-seams blessing upon blessing. 

Tucked in this gem of a pocket-sized book, you’ll find a centenary of prayers for cashiers and checkout-counter folk, in celebration of the wicked hot shower, for little brown birds in lavender bushes, for folks who all day long “hold up STOP signs at construction sites & never appear to shriek in despair or exhaustion,” for opossums, “you poor ugly disdained perfect creatures.” And—take a breath!—in thanks for “hoes & scythes & spatulas & toothbrushes & binoculars & the myriad other tools & instruments that fit our hands so gracefully & allow us to work with a semblance of deftitude.”

And that’s just the start of it. 

No wonder Mary Oliver (see high priestess of poetry, above) praised his “passion for the human, touchable, daily life.” And Cynthia Ozick declared that “to read Brian Doyle is to apprehend, all at once, the force that drives Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and James Joyce and Emily Dickinson and Francis of Assisi and Jonah under his gourd.” 

Doyle, a poet, writer, and longtime editor of the esteemed Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, died in May, 2017, of complications from brain cancer. He’d won three Pushcart Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. 

If you wake up and the day happens to be sunny, not rainy, turn to page 66, where you’ll find that Doyle—the prayerful poet for all occasions—has penned a very fine prayer of thanks for suntan lotion. “Which smells good; which smells like relaxed; which smells like giggling children in peculiar and hilarious bathing suits; which smells like not-working; which evokes summer…”

You might be tempted to pen Prayer No. 101: Prayer of lamentation for the inimitable, irreplaceable Brian Doyle. And so, amen.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

what’s on your summer reading list?

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

if you look closely enough……

IMG_1347

you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

extra special edition: glorious books for the soul

IMG_1042

this is the second of two posts today because, silly me, when i posted season of stillness earlier this morning i didn’t realize the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul — really fine books for the soul — was already posted online. egad. 

so here tis, a double dose for this friday snuggled in the depths of hanukkah and advent and  however you mark the deepening of winter to come….

if you put just one book on your wish list, or your giving list, i’m thinking i’d pick one of these. see if you can guess which would be my number one? 

Christian Wiman’s memoir reflects on years as editor of Chicago-based Poetry magazine, plus Anne Lamott, Elaine Pagels

Barbara Mahany

“He Held Radical Light” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $23

The epigraph, perhaps, whispers the secret of what’s to come in the pages of poet Christian Wiman’s latest soul-searing memoir, “He Held Radical Light.” The epigraph, from Juan Ramon Jimenez, reads: “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.”

So begins Wiman’s wrestling with art and faith, faith and art, driven by the question, “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?”

The book follows Wiman’s earlier, brilliant memoir, “My Bright Abyss,” composed in the wake of his 2011 bone marrow transplant. In this latest work, Wiman — who teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School — offers a volume that is part memoir (his years as the Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine), part anthology (a compendium of poems lucidly critiqued), and, delightfully, a recounting of close encounters of the most curious kind with a Who’s Who of Poetry. He recalls Mary Oliver stuffing half a dead pigeon in her pocket, Seamus Heaney leaning in at a crowded dinner table and beginning an intimate conversation about faith, and A.R. Ammons refusing to read in front of an audience.

Early on in this book that reads like an unfiltered tete-a-tete, Wiman writes that when he left college, he set out to be a poet who would write “a poem that would live forever.” He has done that with this magnificent, radiant memoir.

“Almost Everything” by Anne Lamott, Riverhead, 208 pages, $20

Before you’ve turned even two pages in Anne Lamott’s newest, “Almost Everything,” you might hear yourself thinking aloud that, surely, she’s been peeking in through our windows, diagnosing the terrible straits of our souls. And, thus, she’s dive-bombed this balm straight down the chimney, just in the nick of sweet time. How’d she know how hopeless it’s felt? How bottomless? How’d she know these were the words we so needed?

Over the decades, through her 10 earlier nonfiction books, plenty of us have grown to trust Lamott’s spiritual compass. We settle in quickly here, knowing just around the next sentence she might pry open our heart, and pack in truths we will mull long after we’ve put down her pages.

“It is hard here,” she writes, with bracing honesty, and by “here,” she means this moment on planet Earth. Her subject is hope; she offers it in lines like this: “our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day.” Again and again, Lamott steers us in and out of the canyons and potholes of despair.

“We have all we need to come through,” she assures. “Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter how many messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.”

“Why Religion?” by Elaine Pagels, Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99

Elaine Pagels, one of the great voices in American theology, plunges her reader into an abyss of grief before even the midpoint of her latest work, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.” But fear not.

As Pagels masterfully interweaves her personal story with her profound insight honed through by a career in academia, she offers her reader a lifeline toward hope, toward light after darkness. Along the way, she answers her titular question — Why religion? — by illuminating an ancient truth of human experience: religion, a construct of cultural beliefs and traditions, holds at its core the power to “heal the heart.”

In “Why Religion,” Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, departs from the scholarly writing that propelled her earlier works, “The Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief,” to critical and popular acclaim. Here, in a memoir that wrenchingly recounts the slow death of her 6-year-old son, Mark, and a year later the mountain-hiking accident that killed her physicist husband, Heinz, she bares her incomprehensible, nearly unbearable grief.

Pagels’ fluency and nimble excavation of the wisdom found in the Gnostic Christian texts is what gives her — and her readers — a certain glimpse of a redemptive truth, and an exit route from the griefs that are sure to come to us all.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

telling our truest true stories

writing school

for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.

it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)

i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.

or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.

what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”

put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”

i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”

or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”

and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.

if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.

what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?

thurman books

** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:

Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books

“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25

Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.

It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”

The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.

Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16

How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.

He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.

In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95

For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.

What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.

It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany