A Holiday Book Review

I am always struggling to make sure that each day includes some time devoted to something that most people would call a “spiritual practice”.  In the course of my life, I have tried yoga, transcendental meditation, walking meditation, journalling, praying the hours– if there is an activity recommended by my old compatriots in the New Age movement, I have tried it to a greater or lesser degree of success and discipline.

The one thing that works for me, however, no matter what the current state of my theology, is reading a daily devotion of some type.  The older I get, the more I see how the practices of my childhood carry forward in my life, almost as if imprinted on my DNA, and reading a daily devotion is one of those activities.  My memory is flooded with the picture of my childhood morning ritual:  read that day’s entry from the Daily Word, take my vitamins, pick up my book bag and out the door.

And so, as an adult, whose theology has roamed and grown and changed many times, I do still continue this practice.  I must admit that I miss the devotional books written by our congregation, but there are plenty of others out there to read. This year, in particular I have sampled a variety of devotional books for the season, and, while this little review won’t do anyone any good in 2011, perhaps it will give you some ideas for 2012…here are some of the devotionals I’ve been reading this Advent season.

Since we spent the fall reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in our small group, I was interested to read so more of his work and therefore picked up a devotional created from his writings:  God is in the Manger.  The volume is a compilation of references from Bonhoeffer’s sermons and letters and writings in prison, sharing his thoughts and theology of Advent and Christmas, and includes additional comments from contemporary theologians about his work.   It is thought-provoking and moving, and often heartbreaking when you understand the context of some of the writing.  This is definitely not a volume that will make you “feel good” about the season, but it will provoke you to thought and it will lift you out of our contemporary cultural sweet interpretation of the season.

If you prefer something a little more mystical for the season, but also from the heart of a well known light of the faith, I would highly recommend Christopher Webber’s Advent with Evelyn Underhill.  I’ve already written about this book,  and it has been my primary study guide, but I wanted to mention it again.  I am personnaly drawn right now to the works of Evelyn Underhill:  herself, not an ordained anything, but known as one of the great teachers and seminar leaders and spiritual directors of her day; someone who has left us a wealth of writings to guide us in these later days as well.   One of the problems, however, with a book such as this is that the book is someone else’s vision of what Ms. Underhill might want to say about the season.  Sometimes the editor is on the bull’s eye; sometimes there just isn’t good material to be found for a devotional topic; sometimes the intent of the editor is not clear.  But the entries that are on the mark make the book a worthwhile exercise.  One such entry that is still working its way through my soul is:

When we lift our eyes from the crowded by-pass to the eternal hills; then, how much the personal and practical things we have to deal with are enriched.  What meaning and coherence come into our scattered lives.  We mostly spend those lives conjugating three verbs:  to Want, to Have, and to Do.   Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual–even on the religious–plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest:  forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be:  and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life. (pg. 43)

Perhaps next year I’ll be a bit more disciplined and actually read the commentaries on the Scripture for the season as they are so beautifully presented in the series Feasting on the Word, but just in case I have another in my pocket for next year, one I didn’t get a chance to read this year just because I didn’t find it until a couple of days ago.  That is Advent and Christmas with Thomas Merton.  I’ll let you know how it moves me next Advent.

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