Maybe you dropped it chasing the dream that turned out to be a nightmare. Maybe the batteries died and you’ve been too busy multitasking to recharge them. Maybe it got all waterlogged that season you couldn’t stop crying. Maybe you never had one. Whatever the reason, it is dark in here, and you need to get your bearings. Perhaps you know some nice religious folks who are eager to give you easy answers. Perhaps you used to be one of those people, but pious platitudes aren’t cutting it for you right now. You need some illumination: clear, honest language about God. And you need company: a glimpse into how faith works itself out, in words and in practice, for trustworthy people in the real world.
So here’s my new book, followed by my go-to list for refreshing, down-to-earth, spot-on spiritual reading (including novels, memoir, poetry, prayers, and more). It’s a bit heavy on “how to find your way in the wake of life-altering loss.” But let’s face it: isn’t that a major source of flashlight malfunction?
Finding God in Ordinary Time: Daily Meditations by Christine Marie Eberle
What spiritual terrain are you traversing these days? Moses and Dr. King may have been to the mountaintop, but for most of us, it’s the flat plains of daily life interspersed with the occasional trip to the valley of woe. We may suspect that a divine encounter is possible, but in a culture increasingly reluctant to talk about faith, the religious-vocabulary market seems to have been cornered by people we don’t want to sound like. Enter Finding God in Ordinary Time. My small book is filled with true stories that guide readers across four terrains where the divine presence may be hidden in plain sight: in the wonders of the created world, surprising encounters with strangers, disorienting experiences of travel, and poignant moments of life transition. I ask the question “Where is God in all this?” and then pay attention. Warm, accessible, and surprisingly funny, this book will help you discover your own answers to that question, no matter what terrain you find yourself in.
Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong by Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin’s two wonderful novels immerse us in the life of Margaret, motherless daughter of a loving but depressed Anglican pastor (hence the fond nickname). While I can’t share anything about the second book that wouldn’t require a total spoiler alert for the first, I can say that what I find profoundly satisfying about both is that they provide a fictionalized yet utterly true glimpse into the spiritual musings of someone for whom faith, prayer, and religious practice are normal, ordinary aspects of life. In each book, Margaret provides a thoughtful and utterly sympathetic foil to zealots of both the religious and secular variety. She is such a believable character; I wish I could pick up the phone and call her during my own dark nights.
The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
“Jesuits in Space,” my brother calls them. My preferred subtitle would be “When Bad Things Happen to Good Interplanetary Missionaries.” These books are not for everyone. If you can’t muster the suspension of disbelief required to appreciate the science behind how four Jesuit priests and an equal number of laypeople might travel to another planet because the SETI listening post in Puerto Rico picked up music from outer space, then never mind. If you cannot hack violence in a novel—there’s some pretty brutal stuff here, sexual and otherwise—take a pass. But if you can get past those two things, then OH MY GOODNESS. Mary Doria Russell brings an exquisite ear to the language of the spirit—the doubt that dwells in the midst of faith, the despair that threatens a to-the-death wrestling match with hope, and the crisis that comes when the only possible response to tragedy seems to be either blaming God or blaming yourself. Russell’s religious characters are all over the place: saintly (or insane), visionary and profane. Her secular voyagers, on the other hand, while mostly eschewing religious vocabulary, are consistently committed to the high virtues of love, loyalty, wisdom, friendship, and truth. Her readers are in for quite the ride—probably more than once.
Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
Sometimes I like my inspiration in elegant prose, theological argumentation, or heart-wrenching poetry. And sometimes I just need a vigorous, no-nonsense talking-to. That’s what I got from Year of Yes. I waited in queue for the audio version of this from my library’s Overdrive so I could hear it in Shonda Rhimes’s own voice; it was like having a girlfriend carpool to work with me for a week, launching into another insightful self-revelation each time we hopped in the car. At first glance the only thing the author and I have in common is our introversion; I may own a home and a car, but she owns Thursday night, for Pete’s sake. Yet despite all her money and fame, Shonda’s struggles are universal: prioritizing the urgent over the important, neglecting well-being in favor of to-do lists, and being one’s own harshest critic no matter how many nice things people say. Her commitment to accept life’s invitations for one whole year was brave and obviously transformative. It made me want to say yes more often, too.
Here If You Need Me: A True Story by Kate Braestrup
When I was invited to guest-preach at a Unitarian Universalist church many years ago, I asked if there was something I could read to better understand the tradition. I come from a denomination with a catechism; I was handed a bookmark. The “UU” tradition may not come with a lot of words, but as Chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, Rev. Kate Braestrup doesn’t need a lot of words. Charged for a living with keeping vigil in freezing makeshift shelters with families whose loved ones have gone missing, or keeping vigil with wardens and volunteers at remote rescue sites, Braestrup’s greatest gift is her presence. (On not wearing the recommended law-enforcement-chaplain body armor: “People hug me. My body has to be soft and squishy.”) A survivor of tragedy herself (a mother of four, she is the widow of a state trooper) she has a keen sense of what not to say. When she does use words—with nerve-wracked relatives, to sleep-deprived first responders, and in her own internal wrestlings—Braestrup speaks clearly and unflinchingly—which is, itself, a consolation.
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
When this title appeared in the book review of my Sunday paper, I leaped online and ordered it at once. I have long despised that cliché—embraced as gospel by a shocking number of people—and Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, articulates its flaws with profound and devastating wit. To wit: the farther you are from actual tragedy, the easier this is to say; the closer you are, the harder it is to hear. This is because “everything happens for a reason” implies purpose (albeit hidden and mysterious), and inevitably turns into the bad guy either God (for making it happen) or the sufferer (for earning such tragedy). Although Bowler had long debunked the so-called “prosperity gospel” as a theologian, it took a life-threatening illness to awaken her to the subtle ways she was still holding on to a merit-based economy of the spirit. Shaken out of it and into brilliant, vibrant, incisive rhetoric, Bowler will, I hope, wake up many faith-filled people before they turn the phrase on themselves—or wield it to further wound the already grieving.
Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness and Hope by Eileen Flanagan
Eileen Flanagan’s thought-provoking memoir illustrates the risk—and promise—of spreading one’s heart across multiple geographies and cultures. Raised by an intensely frugal Irish Catholic mother in a tiny apartment near Philadelphia, Eileen’s values were shaped and ultimately sealed by her two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Botswana. This book narrates the period of inner struggle that began when she was on the brink of fifty, a married Quaker mother of two living in a five-bedroom home and yearning for the simplicity and purpose of her mud-hut days. Increasingly drawn to activism around issues of climate change, she listened to her heart and discerned a way forward: into a new midlife calling that integrated her passions for justice, spirituality, and care of the earth. Although the details of Eileen’s journey are uniquely hers, this book is an inspiring read for anyone who looks around and wonders how to put spiritual ideals into practice and make an impact in our increasingly polarized society. You can follow Eileen’s unfolding work as a speaker, teacher, and activist at eileenflanagan.com.
Thirst by Mary Oliver
Although her newest collection is called Devotions, it should come as no surprise that Mary Oliver’s Thirst is the one that makes my list. These poems were written as she grieved the death of her beloved partner of forty years, and simultaneously edged her way into the uncharted territory of faith. “That time / I thought I could not / go any closer to grief / without dying / I went closer, / and I did not die” begins “Heavy.” I used it and several other poems in this volume as my primary texts during a weeklong silent retreat after I lost my mother to a fast-moving cancer, and they brought me deep solace. Oliver’s spirituality has always expressed itself in profound connection to the natural world (including her delightful dog, Percy); in Thirst the God-language grows a bit more explicit, without in any way detaching her writing from its roots.
The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
When you feel utterly destroyed, crushed to the ground ‘til you’re unable to rise, a treatise on depression won’t help you get out of bed in the morning. But you know what might do the trick? A good metaphor, tucked inside an uplifting little fable. Short and deceptively simple, The Faithful Gardner is a series of interlocking tales delivered in the voice of the author’s elderly uncle, a war refugee who has survived unimaginable darkness. This lovely little book can be devoured in one sitting, but the beauty of the language and the power of Estes’s insistence on hope makes it worth reading slowly—then rereading the parts that took your breath away. I can’t say it any better than a review I spotted on Goodreads: “This book is a powerful tonic against despair. I keep it in the medicine cabinet.”
The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief by Jan Richardson
Jan Richardson—artist, poet, and Presbyterian minister—has been crafting words that make my soul sing for decades; she has become a writer of blessings in more recent years. This book is simultaneously searing and soaring, written in the wake of the crushing and completely unexpected death of her husband of only four years. In prayers such as “Blessing for Getting the News,” “Blessing for Coming Home to an Empty House,” and “Blessing for the Longest Night,” she articulates the particular, painful practicalities of grief as only one who’s been there can. It makes her an utterly credible witness to the new life that lies on the far side of loss, and a heartbreaking companion on the journey.
Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living by Peter J. Gomes
It is really hard to give a good sermon—to find something interesting and impactful to say, day after day, about Scriptures and topics that almost everyone present has heard before. As a “professional Catholic,” I listen to a lot of them: good and bad, rousing and indifferent, memorable and mystifying. How I wish that I had been able to listen to one of Peter Gomes’s before he died! Rev. Gomes preached the forty sermons in this book in The Memorial Church at Harvard University. They contain keen insights into nature—human and divine—delivered with plenty of wit and warmth. But what I most love about these sermons is the fact, although preaching to obviously smart people, the Rev. Gomes never took refuge in the abstract and often opaque language of the academy. These sermons are brilliant, not because they dazzle with rhetoric, but because they illuminate daily living. And that is good news indeed.
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
In an obscure but delightful Neil Simon play called “They’re Playing Our Song,” one character asks the other what’s wrong with their relationship. He replies, “Talking! We’re always talking about our relationship. Why can’t we just have a relationship?” Even in our relationship with God, there are limits to the talking. Sometimes the breakthrough we need does not come via words, but through experience, practicing our way into a new level of understanding. And so Barbara Brown Taylor gives us twelve practices to explore. We’re not talking yoga or the rosary here; she presents things that require no special knowledge or training (or flexibility), just… practice. Things like paying attention, wearing skin, getting lost, and saying no. Brown Taylor makes the startling case that what we do with our hands, our time, our bodies, and the rhythms of our days are the stuff of the spiritual life; therefore, being intentional about them can draw us closer to God. One final note: the only thing better than reading this book is reading it together. I was part of a group that spent a year with it, reading practicing one chapter a month then getting together to share our insights over dinner. In twenty-five years of ministry, this remains one of my most profound and bonding experiences.
Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing, and How We Can Revive Them by Jonathan Merritt
If your brain prefers a more systematic, academic approach to the problem of God-language, this is what I’m reading and loving right now. A religion and culture writer raised in the Bible Belt, Merritt moved to New York and discovered that navigating the subway was nothing compared to slaloming his way through conversations with people who didn’t speak “Christianese.” This led to a serious investigation that became the subtitle of his book. He begins by talking about the essential function of sacred words in helping people think about God, and decries the way such language has been coopted by slick politicians and reduced to cheesy Christian catch-phrases. Then he begins the radical (= root) work of exploring hot-button words like blessed, lost, family, sin and of course God, unpacking original meanings, discarding unhelpful cultural appropriations, then reimagining them, coming to “better and truer ways of understanding these holy terms.” Bonus: Merritt gives us this solid scholarship with a good serving of personal anecdote and pointed humor. (Apparently my taste is pretty consistent.)