In this annual round-up I will restrict myself to focusing only on books that deal explicitly with spirituality, notwithstanding some very fine novels and books on social commentary that I read this past year.
But first, an apologia: taste is idiosyncratic. Keep that in mind as you read these recommendations. These are books that I liked, that spoke to me, and that I believe can be helpful for someone seeking guidance and inspiration on the journey. They may not speak to you in the same way.
So which spiritual books did I find most helpful this year?
✣ Veronica Mary Rolf, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich is one of the great Christian mystics, but her thought is not easily accessible to most readers. This book gives a good introduction to her life and her writings, and highlights how much of a spiritual oasis she was in a time when most parts of Christianity conceived of God in very harsh terms.
✣ John Shea, To Dare the Our Father: A Transformative Spiritual Practice. Shea takes up each article within the Lord’s Prayer to challenge us regarding various aspects of our lives, not least vis-à-vis our struggle to come to reconciliation with others. The section on Jesus’s own struggle in Gethsemane is especially insightful.
✣ Gerhard Lohfink, Is This All There Is? A world-class biblical scholar takes up the question of the afterlife as spoken of in Scripture. This is first-rate scholarship rendered accessible to everyone. Lohfink is a gifted scholar and teacher. This is a graduate course on the afterlife made available to everyone regardless of academic background.
✣ Benoît Standaert, Spirituality: An Art of Living. Standaert is a Dutch Benedictine monk and this book (easy to read because it is broken up into short meditations) is a gem of wisdom and challenge. Those of you with Protestant and Evangelical backgrounds schooled on Oswald Chambers’s classic will know what I mean when I say this book is a “My Utmost” for all Christians.
✣ Thomas Moore, Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy. Moore is always brilliant, and this book is no exception. He’s one of our generation’s best defenders of soul. But this book comes with a bit of a warning label: some people may find it too much of a stretch in terms of lacking religious boundaries. Be that as it may, it’s a brilliant book.
✣ Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. One of the foremost Catholic theologians of our generation pushes her thought (and ours) a little further regarding the issue of how the incarnation of God, in Christ, is a “deep incarnation” that affects physical creation as well as humanity. Christ came not only to save the people on this earth, but also to save the earth itself. Christ takes in nature, too. Johnson helps explain how that might be better understood. The book contains an expert theological synthesis on Christian views of why Christ came to earth.
✣ Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. This is one of the most argued-about books of this past year. It’s brilliant, a good read, even if you don’t agree with everything (or even most of) what Peterson says. Some conservatives have used the book very selectively to suit their own causes; just as some liberals have unfairly rejected the book because of some of its attacks on liberal excesses. Both these readings, to my mind, are unfair. Peterson’s overall depth and nuance doesn’t allow for the way it has been misused on the right and criticised on the left. In the end, Peterson lands where Jesus did, with the Sermon on the Mount. Its title is somewhat unfortunate in that it can give the impression that this is just another popular self-help book. It’s anything but that.
✣ Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty. This is a beautiful volume, written by an artist highly attuned to aesthetics. It’s a book about art, faith and religion. Fujimura is a deeply committed Christian and artist. For most people this would constitute a tension, but Fujimura not only shows how he holds faith and art together, he also makes a sophisticated apologia for religion.
✣ Pablo d’Ors, Biography of Silence. Ors is a Spanish author of both novels and spiritual essays. This book (small, short and an easy read) could be a good shot in the arm for anyone who, however unconsciously, feels that prayer isn’t worth the time and effort. Writing out of a long habit of silent meditation, Ors shows us what kind of gifts prayer can bring into our lives.
✣ Trevor Herriot, Towards a Prairie Atonement. In his latest book, the Canadian writer submits that just as wounding others demands some kind of atonement to achieve reconciliation, so do we also need to make some atonement to nature for our historical abuses.