October 2017

SPIRITUALITY AND PRAYER

This month, I again want to pick up on a theme we touched on very briefly earlier this year – reading.

Claire and I often end up having those random conversations that friends often have … what are the best five songs? What are the best five films? What are the best five actors? That sort of thing. This happens occasionally on a Sunday evening as we are tidying up after dinner, when we often end up on YouTube, listening to music. There are two or three staples which remain constant – Phil Collins I Wish It Would Rain Down; Jaws and Humphry Bogart. Rarely do I choose the same five every time Claire and I revisit the conversation.

So… my five favourite Christian, faith based books, what would I choose? If I could only keep five, which five would I pick? This is difficult because different books speak to us at different times of our faith journey, but some are classics. I’ve discounted the Bible, because I would hope all of us would choose this, so it’s an easy choice! In no particular order, the first few are easy to pick.

Jean Pierre Camus’ The Spirit of St. Francois De Sales. (I have C.F. Kelley’s 1953 edition published by Longman). It’s full of wonderful, short snippets from St. Francois, on all sorts of matters spiritual. It’s encouraging, inspiring and just brilliant. Full of Godly wisdom, it helps me when I’m struggling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. (SCM Press, 2001. First published in 1937). In some places, the book is hard work to read and I have to grapple to understand. But that’s also Bonhoeffer’s point- discipleship is hard work, we have to put a great deal of effort into it. The grace Christ gives to us cost Him His life; we must value that grace and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to our discipleship if we are to be authentic Christians who live out the Sermon on the Mount in our lives.

Peter Van Breemen’s The God Who Won’t Let Go. (1998). Exploring various themes, such as forgiveness, mercy, compassion and resurrection, Van Breeman seeks to encourage the reader that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. The dust cover describes the message of the book to be the fact that, “If we put God at the centre of our lives, His love will hold us through every turn of our lives.”

Now it begins to get tricky! Only two choices left…

Wil Hernandez’ Mere Spirituality: The Spiritual Life According to Henri Nouwen. This choice is a bit of a cheat… I love the works of Henri Nouwen, but he was such a prolific writer, I’d struggle to tie it down to one book. Hernandez’ book has snippets from most of Nouwen’s writing, and captures his main themes succinctly.

My final choice would be George D. Carleton’s The King’s Highway: A Simple Statement of the Catholic Belief. (1956 reprint of the fourth edition.) It’s invaluable. First published in 1924, this book simply and clearly teaches us about the Christian Faith as received in the Church of England. Being almost 100 years old, some of the themes and language needs careful consideration; the Church of England has moved on in some important areas, such as the ordination and consecration of women, but it’s still an excellent book on our doctrine, a wonderful little catechism. (Remember, catechism basically means teaching)

There they are, my top five books, which I’d choose if I could only have five books to keep. Right now, at 4.30 on a Sunday morning, these are what I’ve chosen as I write this. But would I choose the same five in a month’s time? What about The Cloud of Unknowing? Or Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today … Gerald Hughes The God of Surprises… Kenneth Leach’s Soul Friend… Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology or his Mere Apologetics or the Catechism of the Church of England?

As you all know, my memory is appalling. I usually forget what I’ve read by the time I get to the end of the sentence, but I persevere. And the general point of a book usually sinks in. An hour spent reading each day is a part of my personal Rule of Life. If I fail to feed my own mind, how can I hope to feed the hearts and minds of those God has placed in my care?

Just a prayer is not the exclusive work of a priest, neither is reading. As Christian Disciples, we would all do well to read a Christian book regularly. Reading nourishes our faith. It helps us to grow, and deepen our relationship with God. I do not read simply for knowledge. I read for Godly wisdom. We feed our minds in order to feed our hearts, and what comes from our hearts shapes our thoughts, words and actions. This is one of Henri Nouwen’s main themes (c.f. The Way of the Heart).

In the Doctrine Commission of the CofE’s report Being Human, they describe wisdom as about how we live well before God and alongside other people in the world. (2003; p.2) A good book should help us do learn to live well before God and alongside each other. But a good book should also teach us something about ourselves. We cannot hope to get our relationship right with God or anyone else if we don’t learn to understand or love ourselves (another key theme running through much of Nouwen’s writings!)

So as the knowledge that goes into our minds flows down into our hearts and becomes wisdom, enabling us to live well before God and alongside each other, helping become more fully human, it helps us to understand ourselves better, too. By tuning into ourselves better, we are more able to tune into God and the people around us better.

In a sense, Christian Reading is a form of self-help. Not in the sense of so many books we see in the self-help or heart, mind, body sections of our bookshops. Not self-help focused on the ‘me’ – aimed at helping us achieve success, be more confident, make more time, improve our self-image, or organise our chaotic days better. We seek to take our reading from our minds into our hearts, so that wisdom may pour forth from our hearts into our relationships – our relationship with God, and with our fellow humanity. Our reading should form and inform us, it should help us to love our Father more deeply, and our brothers and sisters as we long to be loved.

What five books would you choose? Which five couldn’t you live without? What impact have these books had on your life? How has the author’s wisdom impacted upon your relationship with God and with the people you encounter? Which one book from your list would you recommend us all to read?

Over the coming weeks, perhaps God might give you opportunities in your daily encounters, to talk to others about your favourite book, and what it says to you. I’d certainly love to hear about your favourite books.

Owain