pull up a chair

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

Category: books for the soul

the book for the soul that almost got left behind….

IMG_1104

months ago now, i first cracked open the pages of a quiet little slip of a book. i’d fallen in love at the cover, and even more so once i slipped inside. i was charmed, and taken back to when i’d first turned the pages of the little prince, or crept into the hundred-acre wood of winnie the pooh & co. i dutifully wrote and turned in my 650-word review but all these months later, it’s still not run in the pages of the newspaper i wrote it for, and i don’t think it’s ever going to, but i can’t let it slip away. so, since i’m under the covers once again with a fever and achy aches, here’s a book you might want to know about. you too might melt into its pages….

the boy, the mole cover

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse

Written and illustrated by Charlie Mackesy, HarperOne, 128 pages, $22.99

You might want to scoop up two copies of “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse.” One, so you can curl up in a favorite spot, and slowly, slowly turn the pages over and over again — a soul-rippling book to be absorbed as much as one to be read. And that second copy, perhaps, so you can frame the pages that most make your heart sigh. You’d not be foolish to want to rouse every morning and rest your eyes on the heart-piercing wisdoms of this improbable quartet journeying across the pages. 

That’s how beautiful is this tender fable, a story for all ages, a story of unlikely friendship, infinite kindness, and the poignant lessons of love, so apt for these tumultuous times. 

It’s a stirringly-drawn, achingly-unspooled tale that belongs on the treasured shelf of storybook classics that are never outgrown, alongside the likes of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Little Prince,” and any one of the originals from A. A. Milne, he who gave us Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Don’t think that the mention of titles from long-ago childhood in any way diminishes the potency of British illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s genius. Mackesy, long a cartoonist for The Spectator, a British politics-and-culture weekly, and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press, has over the years collaborated with Richard Curtis for Comic Relief and with Nelson Mandela on a lithograph project, “The Unity Series.” In other words, he’s been incubating his extra-large heart for a rather long while. 

And here he bulls-eyes his target. 

In these pages, with words penned in brush and ink, and fresh-off-the-drafting-pad ink drawings, often washed over in watercolor, we meet, one by one, the charming quartet, an assemblage of misfit archetypes encompassing a tender arc of all creatures great and small. 

The boy is lonely we find out right away. Mole, though, befriends him without hesitation. Mole, of course, can’t see very well as moles are not known for their visual acuity. But as is often the case in fable or parable, tracing all the way back to Sophocles in ancient Greece, the great seers are often the ones who are blind. And so it seems here, where Mole is the voice of infinite wisdom (and insatiable appetite for sugary cake). 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asks Mole. 

“Kind,” said the boy. 

“What do you think success is?” asked the boy.IMG_1110

“To love,” said the mole. 

Not long after, we bump into Fox, yet another universal character, and Mackesy tells us in his prologue that “fox is mainly silent and wary because he’s been hurt by life.” Isn’t that a not-unfamiliar affliction? Horse, Mackesy tells us, might be the biggest thing the other three have ever encountered, but he is “also the gentlest.” Again, don’t we all know — and love — someone like Horse?

When crossing a river on horseback, the boy slips and falls. But Horse catches him, and says, wisely, “Everyone is a bit scared. But we are less scared together.” And then, nuzzling against the bowed head of the boy, Horse adds: “Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.” Remounting Horse, and riding deeper into the story, Boy asks: “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?”

“Help,” said the horse.

Traveling on through snow and storm, huddling gently together in the inky-dark of the night, the quartet offer up wisdom upon wisdom, settling deeper and deeper into a contemplative landscape in which love and loyalty quietly win the day. It’s the simplicity of the question and answer, the unfettered truth, that serves as arrowhead to Mackesy’s heart-seeking quiver. 

In the end, any of us might long for permanent residency in this unlikely landscape where when asked, “What do we do when our hearts hurt?” as the boy asked his friends, the answer is this: “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”

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

feel free to fall in love with any of the pages i’ve brought here to the table. here’s one more to make you chuckle…..

IMG_1105

i’d give the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse to anyone i loved — anyone little or not so little. do you have a picture book you fell in love with long long ago, and every time you crack it open you fall in love all over again? what is it?

something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)

church door

’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.

christmas early morn

christmas quiet

i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.

yorkshire puddin boys

yorkshire pudding elves

before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).

i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.

i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.

christmas chairthis must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.

i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.

christmas platesso for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).

i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.

here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.

Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith

pilgrimage cover

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019 

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)

It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.

Aha.

Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.

Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.

“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.

Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.

A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.

Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.

That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.

Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”

And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.

He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”

Egan aimed high, and he reached it.

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

‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’

By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28

what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?

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