By REVIEWED BY BROTHER JEFFREY GROS, FSC, CNS | Published November 13, 2008
“Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion” edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2008). 183 pp., $18.
“The Best American Spiritual Writing” edited by Philip Zaleski. Houghton Mifflin (Boston, 2008). 229 pp., $28.
People from around the world may look on Americans as materialistic, assertive and insensitive in foreign relations, and lacking in either an inner spirit or compassion. However, the fact is that the United States is among the most religious communities in the North Atlantic world. In the midst of its pluralism, affluence and international power, there are deep religious sensibilities and a variety of rich traditions of prayer, contemplation and human caring.
“Writings on Contemplation and Compassion” and “The Best American Spiritual Writing,” from different perspectives, provide treasure troves of both spiritual reading and illustrative material for introducing a congregation or class to the spiritual journey.
The former volume, edited by Robert Ellsberg, includes selections from spiritual authors, mostly recognizable to the Catholic reader. All are Christian, save Mohandas Gandhi, whose influence from the Christian Gospel and on Christian nonviolent spirituality makes him a spiritual companion for many.
The book is designed as a companion to the “Modern Spiritual Masters” series assembled by this editor. The masters included are Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Madeleine Delbrel, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the Rev. Howard Thurman, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Archbishop Helder Camara, Sister Thea Bowman, Father Henri Nouwen and Dorothy Day. Each chapter includes a concise overview of the life and spiritual emphases of each master and selections from his or her writings.
The author has deftly provided texts that illustrate both the central motifs of each author’s relationship with God and their counsel to the spiritual seeker. It provides a suitable guide for both introducing the beginner to the richness of Christian spirituality and a resource for spiritual reading for the active Christians in the world.
Philip Zaleski offers a very different collection. It assembles some of the best writing from a wide plurality of voices, from the explicitly religious to secular reflections from the depths of the human spirit. The selections include poetry, magazine articles, critical essays and personal narratives. The essays range from reflections on faith and quantum theory and Einstein’s spiritual quest, to Buddhist and Catholic pilgrimages. The catholicity of the Catholic selections is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Mexican-American author Richard Rodriguez and Father Richard Neuhaus, editor of the monthly journal First Things, to the same spiritual point—the inadequacy of the secularizing dimensions of American culture.
Even for the nonreligious reader, the selections in this volume provide a unique window into the American spirit. The Catholic reader will be edified by many of the Christian selections, enriched by the religious witness of the struggles of other believers, and challenged by some of the secular spiritual essays. Tales of imprisonment and martyrdom, of struggles with amnesia, of the re-emergence of the church in China are punctuated with poetry and even fiction, which discloses the depth of the human quest, discerned as spiritual writing by the editor.
Some readers’ spiritual lives will be enriched by one or another of these two volumes, but both in their own way provide an accessible window into resources for prayer, reflection and the deepening of one’s relationship to God, one’s neighbor and the world.
Christian Brother Jeffrey Gros is a professor of ecumenical and historical theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn., and a former staff member of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.