How to become… a Spiritual Reader (part 2)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

So let us speak of more distinctly spiritual reading. Would-be spiritual people are always looking for material, which I applaud. Remember that reading can be one more check-mark activity, versus settling in silence and resting in God. Being in a Bible study or prayer group can be a huge blessing, binding yourself to fellow-travellers on the way to God – but this too can confirm and prop up our inability to be quiet and alone, or we might stumble into a study group that is people like us reinforcing our biases and blind spots.

Bookstores and online sites overwhelm us with so many well-marketed options – that frankly need vetting. I’m unsure how to help you vet, how to warn you that just because a book is by a pious person and is about God and spirituality doesn’t make it a true of helpful book in which you should invest your time. There’s a swarm of bad stuff, even if well-intended, and even if popular with people you know – books that do little more than throw a pious cloak over a self-indulgent, culturally enmeshed life.

   {We need to get our theology right to have a healthy spiritual life. On Sunday, my sermon tried to respond to shrill voices in our culture that have hijacked the adjective “Christian,” and this blog I wrote pivoting off the great novelist Marilynne Robinson goes further…}

Consult with someone you trust who is wise. Read, ready to have some surgery performed on your life. If you nod over every paragraph and feel warm and fuzzy when you’re done, you need a different kind of book. Mark Helprin, in his novel Winter’s Tale, speaks of books that are “hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.”

You may rightly conclude that some of the authors I regularly mention in this series are trustworthy. Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Sacks, and so many others. Lots of people I know subscribe to Richard Rohr’s daily email reflections.

With books, there are different kinds of books. Some are arranged for day by day reading. Pete Scazzero’s Day by Day, Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, Matt Miofsky’s brand new The Methodist Book of Daily Prayer, or the deadly serious My Utmost for His Highest (which my mother-in-law read every day for 70 years!) come to my mind. Some are set for a season (Advent or Lent), like A 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, or A 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman, both excellent.

Some are collections of prayers – which you can pray as you read; I love Brian Doyle’s clever and earthy Book of Uncommon Prayer and Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People. Some are simply books about the spiritual life, like Underhill’s The Ways of the Spirit or Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Reading poetry can be prayerful; it would be hard to beat Mary Oliver, or John O’Donohue’s marvelous To Bless This Space Between Us.

And early in 2024, we will commend as a church-wide read Kate Bowler’s Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day, a series of devotions that will be published just a couple of days before she is with us in person for a conversation I’ll have with her on January 29. Mark your calendar! Again, my prescription for spiritual reading is – yes, find some, stick with it, and read slowly so you can ponder. If it’s a comfy pillow, it’s okay to rest for a little while, but then look for something that makes you uncomfortable, a bit restless, asking harder questions. And stick with it, and read slowly so you can ponder.

Try this: click reply and tell me of anything you’ve ever read that did this kind of holy work in you – or share with me any questions or cravings you have in this quest for a spiritual life.