My Year In Review: Books

For the past couple of year, with help from Goodreads, I’ve posted the books I’ve read over the previous year.  I read 14 books in 2015 and they are displayed below.  As last year progressed, my reading took on a definitive theme.  I found myself reading several books on the spirituality of Greek Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox Church has been in existence since just after the time of Christ, yet for various reasons, is largely unknown to the western world.  But its writings on the path of spirituality are a breath of fresh air.  Books like The Way of a Pilgrim, The Orthodox Way, and The Philokalia (still reading this one!), all describe a refreshing perspective on spiritual practices not often discussed in western churches.

books

On the same topic, one of the best books I have read was The Mountain of Silence, which I shared in a previous post.  Glancing at my books to read in 2016, it looks like more of the same as long as the topic keeps challenging and refreshing me.

What does your reading list look like for 2016?

Advertisements

What I’m Reading: The Mountain of Silence

I have previously reflected on the top books I have read that impacted me the most. While I may not be ready to re-rank my top 5, The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides may prove to make my lists of influential books in the future.  It is not often that I read a book where every chapter inspired me and captivated my thoughts for the rest of the day.

MountainFirst, a brief synopsis.  The author, Kyriacos Markides, is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and originally hails from Cyprus.  Through his studies, he began to explore ancient mysticism, despite being himself an agnostic.  His research lead him to a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece and a meeting with a young monk named Father Maximos.  This Athonite community saw themselves as preservers of Greek Orthodox traditions and his friendship with Father Maximos eventually led him to spend several summers interviewing the monk at another monastic community back on the island of Cyprus.  The book not only explores the beliefs and practices of these Greek Orthodox monastic communities, but also chronicles Markides’s own spiritual journey back to his orthodox roots.

What is particularly fascinating is how many of these Greek Orthodox practices became lost to the church in the West.  The Greek Orthodox church was associated with the Byzantine Empire of the East and with the Great Schism of 1054, Western Europe became tied to the church of Rome.  East and West followed very different paths, and while the Western church further divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Eastern church was fighting for its survival with the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  While its traditions were safeguarded in monastic communities, such as those on Mount Athos, many of them became ignored, foreign to Western Christianity.  The author notes that while Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved knowing God through the “eye of contemplation” – systematic and disciplined practices to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties – the Western church has come to be dominated by empirical knowledge, philosophy, and reason.

While the history of Greek Orthodoxy is an important thread throughout the book, the story itself revolves around the author’s personal conversations with Father Maximos.  The reader is allowed to sit along side of Markides and absorb the spiritual wisdom of this Athonite monk.

Among some of the ideas that have resonated with me while reading this book:

  • Greek Orthodoxy stresses that our primary aim in life is to attain the unity with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden.  Our purpose in life, then, is to move closer back to the soul’s unity with God.  Yet, we often value ourselves in terms of how much we contribute rather than in terms of who we are.  Thus, even our spiritual disciplines tend to be measured in terms of how much we are accomplishing.
  • Part of this reunification with God is attained through prayer.  Continual prayer is the way we find God.  The Athonite monks believe there are practices that can help us be in a state of continual prayer, even while sleeping.  My own prayer life has been enriched through many insights discussed in the book.
  • Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means liberation from the objects of this world.  While in many ways this is done more easily within the confines of a monastery, we are all called to detach from those objects that preoccupy us.

I am still processing much of what was presented in The Mountain of Silence, even while reading another book by the same author.  Yet I have already felt the impact of the practices from this monastic community charged with preserving the traditions of the Greek Orthodox church.

My Year In Review: Books

The New Year presents an opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has happened and what has been accomplished.  Goodreads offers an easy way to display the books you completed during the previous year.  My list is below.  Last year, while I didn’t read many books I did read a lot of pages!  Two books in particular consumed much of my reading time.  The City of God is a classic book by Augustine of Hippo and takes a while to read through.  I also spend most of the year working through N.T. Wright’s two volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but because I just completed it in the last week, it won’t show up until next year.

Books 2014

Some books spark additional thoughts or just simply a book review, which I share from time to time on this site.  Last year, I shared some further thoughts on these books:

What books highlighted 2014 for you?

What I’m Reading: New Seeds of Contemplation

I really enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton and those he has influenced, sNew Seedsuch as Thomas Keating.  He has a way of writing that does not seem to revolve around any single profound idea, yet you find yourself profoundly influenced by a hundred little ideas that pepper you as you read his books.  Earlier, I wrote that his book, No Man Is An Island, was one of the books that has influence me the most.  So it was only natural to follow that up with New Seeds of Contemplation.

I’ll be honest, there is much in this book that is very personal and I am not ready to process in public space.  In Merton’s own words, contemplation “cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.”  All this is very personal and unique to each individual.

Yet there is one very simple idea that I keep coming back to. It is not even a central idea, but its’ echoes are insightful.  It is an idea that speaks especially to our virtually connected world of social media.  It is this:

One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.  Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform others.

I had to read it several times to get past the initial bluntness of this spiritual directive:  Mind your own business.  Yet what he is addressing is the gut response to a new, challenging idea to rush off and enlighten everyone else before fully internalizing it, letting it really sink in and begin to shape the way you live.

One of the areas this wisdom seems especially appropriate is in the area of social media.  It seem anymore like I cannot peruse my Facebook news feed without being told what I should think, eat, wear, support, or be in a panic over.  Social media is a great way to keep in touch, network, and even share ideas.  But it is not the best way to really influence and shape another person.  That is best left to discussion, personal interaction, and conversation.  Mind your own business.

It is also much more effective to let others observe the way a cause or idea has actually shaped your life, which is Merton’s point.  As others observe the change in your life, there will be opportunities to share soon enough.

And yes, I realize the irony of pointing all this out in a blog post!  But I do so with the same intent as Merton’s words of wisdom.  Thus, everything else in New Seeds of Contemplation I will continue to process through and keep to myself for now.

What I’m Reading: Ruthless Trust

Have you ever read a book that did not really grab your attention initially, only to pick it up later and have an entirely different perspective of the book?  That was my experience with Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning.  I actually read this book several years ago.  I enjoyed it, but it was not one of my favorites by Manning.  (Abba’s Child was perhaps one of the books that have had the greatest influence on me!)  But recent circumstances prompted me to read it again and it turned out to be exactly what my soul needed to hear.images

Manning calls the act of trusting in the love of God the second conversion.  Many may accept God’s gift of grace, but then live out their Christian lives never fully understanding what it means to trust God with their whole being.  One reason for this is a loss of God’s transcendence:

The loss of a sense of transcendence among today’s believers has caused incalculable harm to Christian spirituality and to the interior life of individual Christians.

Busyness, stress, fear, and image management all contribute to this loss of transcendence.

On a personal level, the last six months have brought much change, stress, and transition to my life.  From buying a house to moving to a new city to unexpected expenses to unplanned life events, I found myself just trying to keep my head above water and get through all the transition.  But I also discovered just how little I trusted God.  Trust is easy when life is going well; difficult times will reveal just how much we actually believe that God loves us, hears our prayers, and is shaping us through our circumstances for our betterment.

Hence, the prompting for me to re-read this book.

Through short, easy-to-read chapters, Manning describes the many-faceted aspects of trust.  Some of the more poignant aspects that I needed to be reminded of included:

  • “The foremost quality of a trusting disciple is gratefulness.”  Gratitude is accepting the invitation to celebrate life one day at a time.  This includes all that life throws at us, whether good or bad.  When we live in a state of stress and anxiety over our circumstances, we will certainly experience a loss of gratitude.
  • “Trust cannot be self-generated.”  We cannot determine within ourselves to trust God more with additional effort.  The paradox is that the harder I try to trust, the more I am actually relying on myself and less on God.  Trust develops when I allow myself to be loved by God completely, releasing the need to be in control of my circumstances.
  • To be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is an act of radical trust.  Worrying about the present and past, endless self-analysis, and constant planning of our future all rob us of the ability to be fully present in each moment.

These, and many more points, served as timely reminders of what I had evidently lost sight of.  Trusting God is an act of surrender – surrendering control of outcomes, future plans, agendas, and expectations.  It is a daily act that allows us to meet God in each and every circumstance, knowing that no matter what the outcome, we are loved and valued by the Creator.

Renew Your Mind

I just finished reading a book that has been on my reading list for quite some time: City of God City of Godby St. Augustine.  It is considered a classic, but if I am honest, it was a tedious (and long) read.  It is incredible what points of theology were being debated at the turn of the fifth century AD – issues such as how much a person will weigh or what age they will be in heaven, which makes me wonder what issues might be considered frivolous in our modern debates. Yet the overarching theme of the book was intriguing: the contrasting viewpoints between the once-powerful city of Rome and the ethereal city of God. One of Augustine’s primary points was that to live life in the city of God would require an entirely different perspective from the way the world operates.

This motif coincides with another issue I have been wrestling with as of late: what does it mean to renew your mind? The Apostle Paul addressed this in a couple of his letters:

 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds.

Renew your mind. Or we might say today, “Change the way you think about things.”

We can at times be naïve about what this means by assuming that it is something that just happens to people of faith: “The Holy Spirit will renew my mind.”  That may be part of it but it isn’t the whole of it.  Or maybe it involves asking the occasional, “What would Jesus do?” question.  But I think it runs deeper than that.

When we approach the subject of the way we think or our perspective on life, we are really talking about worldviews – not necessarily the active thoughts in our brain, but the unconscious way in which we are processing everything around us.  Our worldview is the lenses through which we are interpreting our life events, not even aware of the glasses we are wearing.  In other words, if we have to ask the question, it is probably not yet a part of our worldview.

Perhaps an anecdote will help.

When my wife and I moved to Chicago several years ago, we were doing so as born and raised Southerners. I was bringing with me an entire worldview based on the culture of the southern United States. This perspective was challenged in many ways by the Midwest urban center that is the city of Chicago.

Early on there were numerous times when my perspective seemed at odds with the environment around me. Then I began asking the question, “What would a Chicagoan do in this situation” or “why is this different from the way I would think about this question,” essentially confronting my own point of view. Over the next several years, I asked those questions less often, because I found that I was just learning to think differently. I was adopting and embracing a different worldview. It was becoming simply a part of who I was. Ironically, after living in Chicago for thirteen years and moving back to Florida, I experienced some of the opposite: my newly adopted perspective was being confronted in areas I had previously never given a second thought.

I believe this is what Paul was referring to when he called on these communities of Jesus to renew their minds. He wanted them to not simply ask some questions of the pagan culture around them, but adopt an entirely different worldview to the point where they were no longer asking the questions, they were responding naturally as followers of Jesus to the world around them.

After several years as a Chicagoan, I no longer asked, “What does it mean to be a Chicagoan?” I just was one. Likewise, as citizens of the city of God, can we renew our minds to point where we no longer have to ask, “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?” because we already are one, from the very depths of our mind and thoughts.

My Year In Review: Books

Goodreads has a pretty cool feature that allows you to display all the covers of the books you completed that year.  Since I am always reading something – and am always interested in what others are reading – I thought I’d share the books I finished reading in 2013.

2013 Books

 

I try to use this site to review or comment on many of the book I read, but don’t always get to all of them.  I did manage to get my thoughts down on the books below (click for the link):

The end of the year is always a great time to review memories, milestones, and significant moments from the past year.