L. Roger Owens
Church Publishing, 200 pages
Reviewed by Teri McDowell Ott
With his 40th birthday just two months away, L. Roger Owens wondered aloud with his spiritual director, Sister Anna, if he might be entering a dark night of the soul. Sister Anna responded, “It sounds less to me to like a dark night, and more like a threshold of discovery.”
Sister Anna’s words struck Owens, leading him to search for God in a new, intentional way. He decides to take 40 walks the year after he turns 40. Suspecting that staying close to home would be key to discovering a spirituality for midlife, Owens’ walks don’t take him anywhere new or exotic, but rather to his local nature preserve three miles from his home outside of Pittsburgh. Likewise, I too sought out a spiritual director in my 40s, seeking to feel God’s presence like I had in my younger years. Owens’ journey, then, feels familiar and his Merton-esque style of writing led me to contemplate my own life and faith.
Owens, who teaches Christian spirituality at Pittsburgh Seminary, writes: “When I speak on contemplative spirituality the groups rarely include people in their twenties and thirties. Maybe those folks are so busy with their careers and families and projects they don’t have time to come. But now I wonder: maybe, given the shape of our life projects in the first four decades, we don’t see the value. We are making ourselves. … Yet it seems so clear to me now. My work with God is the hard work of letting go of the idea that I’m the one who does the work.”
Owens is authentic, honest and self-deprecating. When he challenges himself to face his fear of heights on one of his walks, venturing out to the farthest point of a tree-top lookout, our hearts race along with his as we simultaneously cheer him on.
Late in the book, Owens quotes Thomas Merton’s epiphany while standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. Merton writes: “In the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” Owens clearly understands the need to encounter humanity — to balance our spirituality with both inward/interior practices and outward/generative ones. His walks serve as sanctuary while he contemplates the political chaos of our day, police killings of African American men and his white male privilege.
Ultimately, reading Owens’ “Threshold of Discovery” was a spiritual practice in itself. It slowed me down and helped me attend to the world around me. After finishing the book, I took my dog for a walk through my small, rural midwestern town. Three blackbirds sat in a tree set against the gray sky. A family of five sat on the front stoop of their one bedroom house, the kids sucking on juice boxes, the dad bumping music for them out the open windows of his car. A tiny beagle mix ran to meet my dog in the road, they touched noses in greeting, barked and wrestled before I moved us on. Owens quotes Simone Weil saying, “attention is a kind of prayer.” If you read this book you’ll likely find yourself walking and praying too.
Teri McDowell Ott is the chaplain of Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.