Because I have been recovering from heart surgery, I have needed light reading and I have read through the Jan Karan series of Milford books and have come to love the various parishioners of Father Tim. I have also discovered a delightful set of similar books by Philip Gulley, set in Harmony, Ind. The pastor, Sam Gardner, struggles with faith and professional issues and we see ourselves in him and the characters of the town. Home to Harmony and Just Shy of Harmony are both inspirational food for my soul. Lynne Hinton, a Congregational minister herself who sets her tales in Hope Springs, another Southern town, also touches the reader’s soul. These thoroughly wholesome books provide a good balance to the bad news surrounding us and offer a glimpse of the way the church, at its best, is a beacon of light in a dark world.
After Sept. 11, I began to want to learn more about Islam and eagerly read Islam, A Short History by Karen Arm-strong. She may go a bit too far in defending Islam from critics but she got me to read the Qu’ran, itself, and to discover the spiritual depth of that faith that was previously unknown to me. I followed that by reading her Battle for God, in which she traces the development of fundamentalism in Islam, Judaism and Christianity in a sympathetic manner. She shows how, in the face of the onslaught of materialism and the overwhelming power of technology, many believers in the ancient faiths have been driven to a protective stance, sometimes to extremes, out of a belief that their sacred traditions are being attacked.
In a different way, Huston Smith in his book Why Religion Matters demonstrates how materialism and scientism have taken over our culture and squeezed out faith. I came away from his defense of faith with a new appreciation for the power of my own tradition and a deeper sense of God’s reality. Both Armstrong and Smith make it clear that people of faith have more in common with one another than with the secular materialists who dominate our culture. I came to realize how easily I have allowed myself to be co-opted by a materialistic outlook and how much my own soul longs for the reassurance of the centrality of faith. I can sympathize with fundamentalists, while strongly disapproving of their tactics.
To play fair, I have been reading in the arena of Jewish mysticism and have been inspired by the work of Lawrence Kushner in his two books, Honey from the Rock and The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition. We Christians are woefully ignorant of the faith of our Jewish neighbors and all too often dismiss Judaism as a political or cultural religion only. We can learn from our cousins in faith how to deepen our own souls, and I have certainly been fed by this new material.
Buddhism has always fascinated me by its sense of detachment from the material world and its ability to call the faithful to a deep sense of sanctity. I have found Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ a kind of devotional guide, especially after reading Elaine Pagel’s wonderful introduction. Bede Griffiths, a Roman Catholic monk who went to India and became a primary interpreter of Eastern religion, has written a profound work of appreciation for Buddha and Krishna from a Christian perspective, which learns from these faith traditions and enriches Christian faith and practice as a result. Return to the Center is a book to which I find myself returning regularly for the refreshment of my soul.
Lest the reader believe that I have abandoned my own faith tradition, I have found the Companions for the Journey series of devotional guides published by St. Mary’s Press to be a steady source of inspiration. I have used Praying with the Celtic Saints, Praying with Dorothy Day and Praying with Thomas Merton and, in each case, I have found that I have learned about these saintly people, but also have been guided to deepen my own soul in the process. Another book of Merton’s prayers, Dialogues with Silence, is an excellent source for enriching our own prayers.
I have always believed that Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) was one of the most profound mystics Christianity has produced. A new book of his sermons and sayings, Meister Eckhart: From Whom God Hid Nothing, is an insightful look at what Eckhart thought and how he dared to deviate from accepted orthodoxy because of his own soul experiences. He has blazed a trail of depth which we are all challenged to follow.
Howard Rice is professor emeritus of ministry at San Francisco Seminary.