Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan say they’re on a ‘Strange Journey’? But are they really?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Please take a moment to meet two fascinating writers—Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan—who claim in their new book to have taken a Strange Journey. As a journalist who has covered religion in America for 40 years, I question whether their journey is all that “strange.” Rather than using that term to describe them, I would say they’re excellent guides into the rapidly growing sea of Americans who are religiously restless, deeply interested in authentic spirituality and are willing to go wherever their yearnings take them.

Griffith and Ryan are not exactly “Nones”—the 1-in-4 Americans who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation, a movement I explored in 2016 in a report for Pew Research’s Trust magazine. Why aren’t they Nones? As their book’s subtile explains, they have found a new religious affiliation: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church.

However, their online magazine—Sick Pilgrimis jam-packed with None-friendly columns that they write themselves, as well as pieces their friends contribute to their online magazine. In their restlessness, these writers aren’t wasting time engaged in church politics. They have far more important matters to explore. For the most part, the Sick Pilgrim writers are describing moments in their lives when they connect in some remarkable way with real spiritual energy. That moment may come through appreciation of a particular saint’s legacy, or it may come while caring for a relative, or perhaps even while getting a new tattoo!

That kind of religious restlessness is shared by millions of Americans today. In the Pew magazine story about these trends, I talked with University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker, who drew special attention to Pew’s conclusion that Americans are increasingly drawn toward their own independent spiritual reflection. “What really stood out for me in this new report are a number of questions that try to get at the way Americans are wrestling on a deeper level with the meaning and purpose of life,” Baker said. “I’m really intrigued by these Pew findings that, to cite one example: Whether you’re religiously affiliated or not, there’s a growing number of people who experience a deep sense of wonder and awe about the universe.”

To put this simply: If you’re interested in what’s emerging among those millions of religiously restless men and women, then you should get to know these two writers. You should follow their work in their Sick Pilgrim online magazine. You should order a copy of their new book Strange Journey.

These writers are chroniclers of what Baker describes as, “the way Americans are wrestling on a deeper level with the meaning and purpose of life.”


Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan. (Photo used with permission.)

Among the new book’s eight 5-star reviews on Amazon, one writer describes their genre as a “conversation narrative.” That’s sort of true. Long-time followers of ReadTheSpirit may recognize Jessica’s name from a cover story four years ago about her earlier, award-winning memoir, Love and Salt—A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters. That truly was a conversation between Jessica and her co-author Amy Andrews. In 2013, as we published that earlier story about Mesman’s and Andrews’ work, I wrote:

Two American women—one who lives in Illinois and one in Virginia—published a collection of their letters, spanning three years and some tumultuous changes in their lives. Their project is a unique window into the spiritual lives of American women—wives, mothers and professionals in their 30s. While American women are the greatest consumers of spiritually themed media—books, magazines and websites—they usually find publishers offering them a heavy diet of older male voices. Instead, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith wrote their own inspirational Christian classic from scratch.

In Strange Journey, Jessica and Jonathan did write alternative chapters to form the book, but their narratives are more of a parallel travelogue of their pilgrimages—not really a dialogue.

In our interview, Jonathan said, “We wrote our sections of this book separately and then stitched it together. Through our work with Sick Pilgrim, we already knew a lot about each other and we knew it could work that way.”

So, the new book is not exactly a conversation between these two. Nevertheless, their new book does represent a landmark in religious publishing. If you care about trends in American spirituality—you should snap up a copy, read it and save it on your bookshelf.

Just like Jessica and Amy earlier “wrote their own … from scratch,” Jessica and Ryan also aimed to write their own “Christian classic.” As you read Strange Journey, you will discover that they both are steeped in classic Christian writing.


Charles Williams.

One of the stirring figures you will encounter in this new book is an often-ignored member of the Inklings, the British writing circle that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Jessica’s and Jonathan’s journey, their main connection with the Inklings is through Charles Williams (1886-1945). Loyal fans of Williams argue that he was the most spiritually adventurous of all the Inklings—and helped to push both Lewis and Tolkien to expand their own imaginative boundaries.

Four years ago, in our interview about Love and Salt, Jessica talked about her interest in Williams’ novels and other spiritual writings:

“The Inklings were a mystical bunch. I enjoy the novels of Charles Williams and, among the Inklings, Williams was really out there. … Now, I’m not saying that I totally agree with everything Williams wrote, but he has a lot of interesting ideas.”

At that time, it was a cautiously worded description of Williams, whose mysticism cut across so many religious boundaries that many of his ideas about how Christianity connects the entire cosmos defy easy description. For example, if he were alive today, Williams just might welcome Jessica’s and Ryan’s phrase “Sick Pilgrim” to describe his boundary-breaking explorations of faith. Williams definitely would fit into the movement toward free-form spiritual exploration identified by Pew researchers.

Today, feeling more comfortable describing her current friends and co-authors as boundary breakers, Jessica described Williams, in our interview, this way: “Charles Williams is a genuine religious weirdo! In his lifetime, he was involved in all kinds of esoteric movements that were going on in that era. As a result, he put all kinds of crazy stuff into his writing. And I recognize that exploration. It’s in my blood. I’ve come to realize: I’m attracted to religious weirdos.”

Or, as Pew researchers might describe these folks collectively—to the millions of Americans who are religiously restless right now.

By the way, if you want to explore Charles Williams’ books, Jonathan recommends “starting with Williams’ All Hallow’s Eve. I think it’s his most accessible and coherent. Plus, it’s got some of his most startling images to keep readers engaged.”



Why else should you buy a copy of Strange Journey?

First, Catholics will cheer! These two pilgrims explain on the front cover of their book that their journey winds up—at least in this stage of their lives—in the Catholic church. If you’re among the 1-in-4 Americans with a Catholic affiliation, you’ll celebrate their fresh discoveries of the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Their passages describing the spiritual power of the Eucharist are deeply stirring, even for non-Catholic readers. If you’re part of a Catholic small group or reading circle, this is a very timely choice because Jessica and Ryan structure their journey into sections labeled: Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent and Easter. If you can’t organize a small group discussion before the end of the year, then grab the book now and schedule your discussions during Lent.

Second, Jonathan’s long journey stems from his childhood in a family that was immersed, decades ago, in the Catholic Charismatic renewal. Today, there are many men and women still grappling with the legacy of that all-encompassing movement. If you’re among those readers, you will find this narrative especially intriguing.

“There are positive and negative sides to my experience, as a child, in the Charismatic renewal,” Jonathan said in our interview. “On the positive side, it certainly helped to make me a mystic today.”

Finally, while this book represents a deep dive into these authors’ lives, it is not an appeal to the kind of isolation and obsession with selfish spiritual desires that mars a lot of what passes for spiritual self-help books, these days. This book isn’t an invitation to go off on your own and forget about the rest of the world.

At every step in their journey, even in their darkest moments, Jessica and Ryan are trying to connect people. Ultimately, it’s that affirmation that aligns so perfectly with the underlying values of our own ReadTheSpirit magazine.

Toward the end of the book, Jonathan writes:

“The growing Sick Pilgrim community includes priests, nuns, artists, writers, professors, theologians, the happily married, the divorced and widowed, single moms, single dads, the grief-stricken, persons who identify as LGBTQIA, farmer’s moms, and everyone in between. There’s no real template for what a sick pilgrim looks like—other than one of the heart. True, it’s usually a heart with a lot of open wounds or scar tissue. But none of us wants to remain in that wounded state. We are bound together on this journey by a deep, desperate desire to be healed, and the conviction or suspicion that this healing will come only through Jesus, present in the Eucharist, and in one another. So we lock arms and seek him together, throughout the strange landscapes of our strange lives.”

Care to read more?

Looking for more great reading? Perhaps shopping for holiday gifts? Please take a moment to share this story about Jessica and Ryan with friends on social media or via email. And, take another moment to explore our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore as well.



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Terrific children’s books on your holiday shopping list? Consider these opportunities for discovery!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Every year, ReadTheSpirit makes a point of highlighting great “children’s books,” and we always stress: The best books in this genre always appeal to adults, as well, because early literacy depends on a spirited interaction across generations. As we reach November, and the start of the “holiday shopping season,” we are recommending three new children’s books by Candlewick Press.

All three of these books are opportunities for fun—and all of them include surprising opportunities for discovery and even further learning with the curious kids you love.

And, all three are from Candlewick Press. If you haven’t already discovered Candlewick—you’ll want to make note of this publisher’s name. Like ReadTheSpirit magazine, Candlewick was founded around a public list of basic principles that include a commitment “to make the world a better place, not just through the books we publish but also in the way we work.” (Want to know more about Candlewick’s collective values? Check out the Candlewick Cares page in the publisher’s website. Want to know more about our own 10 founding principles? Check out this About Us page.)


I wish I had a copy of Walk This World at Christmastime when my own children were young. As a journalist who specializes in religious and cultural diversity—including coverage of religious holidays—I love the way this book literally opens doors to year-end observances around the world. The book is focused on Christmas, but there are lift-the-flap doorways that provide opportunities to touch on Hanukkah and Kwanza as well.

Each page is a collage of illustrations from various countries as we slowly “read our way around the world.” Children are invited to spot the lift-able flaps on each page. There also is a numbering system scattered through the book from 1 to 25, so adult readers could go through just a page or two per day. If you are intrigued by global cultural diversity, you could easily talk with young ones about a wide range of questions. Why is “Santa Claus” represented by “Father Frost” in former Soviet republics? Why do some communities celebrate the holiday on December 6—or even early January? You’ll see a range of lights and lanterns pictured in this book, and you could go online for do-it-yourself versions of these symbols of the season.

At first glance, you won’t see much text in this book. However, there is a surprisingly extensive array of micro-stories, as well, because every flap holds more text. Got kids who love Where’s Waldo? You can ask them to search for particular scenes on each page. Can they identify each country’s landscape as we make our way around Earth? You may be surprised at how much children have picked up from television and pre-school. And note: As part of my review of this book, I invited five adults in my family to sit through a reading of the book. Everyone was intrigued—and we took time to lift every single flap, reading every word!

For parents who love holiday reading and cultural diversity, this is a must-buy book!


A Christmas for Bear is the latest volume in this beloved series of best-selling picture books, which we’ve been recommending for family reading over the years as each new volume has appeared. How popular are they? They’ve made the New York Times best-seller list and during an early November visit to the Macy’s Chicago Christmas department, this new book was stacked up in at least three locations for the holidays.

At this point, the characters are well known to regular readers. Bear is a gigantic, fuzzy and often over-bearing homeowner with few friends. Clever and compassionate little mouse breaks through his gruff exterior and continually warms bear toward the wider world.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In this new adventure, Bear is extroverted enough to be planning his first Christmas party—ever. As it turns out, he only is inviting one guest: mouse. But mouse fills the house with mischievous glee. Bear’s carefully scripted plan for the party includes a poem and a special holiday meal involving pickles. Mouse refuses to stay on script, because he can’t see any sign of gifts in bear’s elaborate Christmas display. The two friends scamper around the entire house as mouse tries to plumb this mystery. Bear huffs and puffs, suggesting that gifts will not be exchanged! Mouse simply cannot believe that his friend’s heart hasn’t grown large enough, at this point, to include at least one Christmas present.

What’s the discovery here? If you care to dig further, you can explore the so-called “Christmas Pickle,” which turns out to be a fanciful “tradition” involving a Woolworth promotion of European-made Christmas ornaments in the late 1800s. Those early shipments included lots of colorful glass fruits and vegetables and, for some reason—pickles.

Care to read more? If you’re thinking of a Christmas present for children who have not yet discovered bear and mouse, you might also want to order a copy of the original A Visitor for Bearthe first volume by Seattle-based children’s author Bonny Becker. These characters jump to life in Kady MacDonald Denton’s illustrations—so much so, that you’ll enjoy reading the book over and over again with children. Want even more? Here’s a link to our earlier story about another treasure in the series: A Bedtime for Bear, about a sleepover at bear’s house.


In our family, we have loved pop-up books for several generations, including examples from more than a century ago that are beloved volumes on our bookshelf to this day. While this third book has zero holiday content, we immediately recognized ABC Pop-Up as a marvelous choice for holiday gift-giving.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Our publishing-house staff has spent more nearly two years working on early learning materials for nonprofits working in communities with many challenges, from recent immigration of non-English-speaking families to poverty and related issues. One of the major goals in the innovative programs we highlight in our own publishing is engaging as many senses as possible in early literacy. This pop-up book brilliantly invites adults and children to explore several senses: sound, vision and even tactile experiences of exploring the pop up shapes!

My favorite sequence is a pop-up bed that stands up in front of us, as we read the book, without any immediate clue as to the letters involved. Then, if we closely examine the bed, we discover the pillow has an embossed P in one corner and the quilt has an embossed Q. Little fingers can touch the letters and actually feel the raised shapes.

Then, the sequence continues with a stately tree that leaps up with an attached tire swing and, as we look over the entire page, we discover that we can glimpse the tree’s gnarled roots at the bottom of the page. What letters are we discovering? The tire swing actually dangles from a string and, if our eyes are quick, we can see the S for swing. But what about R? Little fingers can detect an embossed R in the tree’s roots. And then what’s the T? Well, you can guess.

In our family collection, we now own more than 100 pop up books and, while this book is, indeed, little in its physical scale, it is truly a work of genius!

Looking for more great books?

As you shop for the holidays, be sure to check out our own bookstore as well!


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Guest Writer Cindy La Ferle on “Why I Still Love Halloween”

TODAY, guest writer Cindy LaFerle visits ReadTheSpirit again with a delightful, new, holiday-themed story:



A_halloween_skeleton_goes_trick_or_From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,

Good lord, deliver us!
A Scottish saying

Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories.
Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?

While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil.

In fact, I always felt a little sad for one of my son’s grade-school pals, whose born-again Christian parents refused to let him wear a costume, attend Halloween parties, or go trick-or-treating
with the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. While I respected the family’s religious devotion, I disagreed with their conviction that the holiday’s pre-Christian history was a threat to their faith. (I wanted to remind them that Christmas trees and Easter baskets also boasted pre-Christian, pagan origins. But I kept my mouth shut.)

British and Irish historians are also quick to remind us that “All Hallows Eve” did not originate as a gruesome night of devil worship—though I’ll be the first to admit that American retailers, film producers, and merchants who cash in on Halloween are guilty of adding their own mythology—and gore. Regardless, in my view, what most of us seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.

Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.

For flea-market junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.)

Over the years, in fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.

And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

Halloween’s deep roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.

“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”

And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.

On cool October nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine. I like to recall a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury, whose affection for Halloween surpasses even mine: “If you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of mystery and wonder.”

And I think of my beloved Scottish grandparents, who left their exhausted farms in the Orkney Islands to begin new lives in United States in the 1920s. I recall the knee-cracking highland folk dances they taught me, and the silly lyrics to their rural old-country tunes. I remember their hard-won wisdom, and how much I still miss their love.

Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of my own “harvest”—how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.

All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn’s final weeks. And a toast to the year ahead. All in good fun.


Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published essayist and author of Writing Home, an award-winning collection of essays. Her writing has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Catholic Digest, The Detroit Free Press, Michigan BLUE, Reader’s Digest, Victoria, and many other publications. She enjoys posting inspirational quotes with her photography on her blog, “Things that Make Me Happy” Cindy visited ReadTheSpirit earlier with a story about her appreciation for Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

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Categories: Christian

Robert Wicks on the enduring power of our stories in ‘Night Call’

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“A story buries itself in your heart.”

That’s how Robert Wicks—popular with readers around the world for his books on coping with trauma and restoring resilience in life—explains this unusual new book that’s more storytelling than pointed advice. Wicks’ earlier books are popular for their usefulness to readers, frequently pulled off the shelf and re-read. That’s because he usually packs his books with lists of tips, ideas and questions. A typical Wicks book is half inspirational writing—and half materials for self-reflection and small-group discussion. Rest assured Wicks fans, Night Call does have some of those Wicks-trademark bullet points. There’s even a 55-page guide to a five-day “self-directed resiliency retreat” at the end of this book!

But from the opening page, it’s clear that this volume represents something different among Wicks’ works.

“I’m glad that you picked up that distinctive difference in this book,” Wicks told me as we started our interview about Night Call. “It’s true. This is a unique book. I know that people like my lists—they tell me how useful they are. But lists tend to be tucked away on a shelf.

“People retain stories, because a story buries itself in your heart. Then, when something similar happens in your life, that story comes to mind. In this book, I have included some of the most powerful stories about my life and the work I have done all around the world. I consider this book my legacy.”


Author Dr Robert Wicks

“Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World” is Wicks’ subtitle for this new book—no surprise to his regular readers. He’s been writing about resilience from this perspective for years.

The difference here is that he directly addresses how to grab hold of our resilience when it seems to be slipping away in the midst of night. And, by “night,” Wicks may indeed be talking about the dead of night in the cycle of our day—an ominous and vulnerable time for all of us. Beyond that, he also is talking about the timeless concept of “night” in the sense that Elie Wiesel uses the term in his memoir Night and St. John of the Cross used it in  his 16th Century classic Dark Night of the Soul.

In our interview, Wicks put it this way: “When I am working with people, I try to prepare them for the challenges that inevitably will come. The question is not if night will come. The question is when night comes. That’s not morbid. It’s acknowledging reality.”

Throughout his book, he repeats this frequent admonition to his main body of readers—people in helping professions. At the end of his Epilogue he writes:

It is not if we will experience darkness in a life well lived. It is when. In the case of professional helpers and healers who came in for therapy or mentoring, I found that at about the 10th session, they had built up enough trust to share much of what was bothering them about their situations and, more poignantly, about themselves. And when I would encounter their sadness and rage as their feelings of impotence, experiences of being misunderstood, and stress were tangibly before us, I would of course, feel to some extent the darkness growing within me as well.

Now that sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Please do not shy away from this new book, because Night Call’s true gift to us, as readers, is how Wicks responds when he feels that darkness swirling around someone he is helping—and threatening to engulf him in the process. What he does next is to affirm the potential of bouncing back to a healthy balance of self confidence and renewed vocation. That passage at the end of the Epilogue continues as he looks at the professional who has come to him for help and thinks to himself:

If only you realized how good you are. How gentle and assertive you have been in so many situations and what a positive difference you have made in so many lives.

Right now, consider printing out those lines on a piece of paper you will tape to your bathroom mirror or your refrigerator door. That’s the kind of work Wicks so masterfully carries out year after year. He keeps telling us: Remember who you are! Reclaim your resilience!

And in this volume he adds most forcefully: That’s true even in the midst of our darkest nights.


Compassionate, caring love is the core of a satisfying life, Wicks has taught for many years. In Night Call, he reminds readers through dozens of stories—some as short as a paragraph, some as long as a few pages—that men and women engaged in public service must remember that they need compassionate care, too.

In one story, Wicks finds himself caught in a downpour during a break in a series of workshops he was presenting for weary caregivers and aid workers in a region of Cambodia trying to rebuild after devastating violence. Who helps Wicks as he suddenly finds himself threatened by torrential rains? It’s a poor shopkeeper who extends the hospitality Wicks truly needs. That man understands the powerful gift of offering even the smallest of compassionate acts.

The whole process of discernment and rediscovering resilience begins with humility, Wicks said in our interview. “Humility is an elusive virtue,” he said. “It’s often misunderstood as defacing yourself or feeling powerless or letting people step on you. No, humility is a very, very powerful virtue. I believe that true ordinariness is tangible holiness. The shopkeeper had that. Most of us may not think about it. We don’t value this kind of humility. But, when you have humility, you avoid the danger of extreme self confidence on one hand—and then exaggerated self doubt on the other. With humility, we become honest at looking at our gifts. By the same token, we are better equipped to deal with night when it comes.”

Wicks ends this new book with a passage that long-time fans of his work will recognize and welcome.

“By reflection on the need for self-compassion and how to effectively reach out to others with a sense of openness to what we can be taught, there is a real possibility for profound positive change. Why? Because to be truly open, we experience humility and, once again, when we take humility and add it to knowledge we get wisdom. When we take that very wisdom and add it to compassion, we get love, and such love is at the heart of being a true friend to others—actually, it is at the heart of a truly rewarding life.”


First, order a copy of this new book, Night Call, via Amazon.

If you would like to explore some of our earlier interviews with Robert Wicks, consider:

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Maggie Rowe: Can you imagine … no more ‘in’ group and ‘out group? Only ‘together’!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

TV writer and author

One day when I was a student at Hoffman elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago, an “in group” and an “out group” arose in Miss Macaulay’s 2nd grade class.

Before this point, we had just been kids; kids on the playground, kids drawing pictures, kids eating paste; but now, as suddenly as a stomach ache can set in from paste ingestion, my second grade class was felled into two distinct groups. The “in group” had nicer clothes, richer parents, blonder hair and were better acquainted with the songs on the top 40 radio station B96. The “out group,” of which I was a member, desperately wanted to be part of this “in group,” but the line was clear.

And I was on the wrong side of it.

My parents told me that when I was older, there would be no “in group” and “out group.” The kids would outgrow it, they said.

But they were wrong. The “in group” and the “out group” lived on. The criteria simply changed. In some of the following grades—in camp one year, a dance troupe in another—I was “in,” but mostly I was “out.”

I thought that at church at least these divisions would not exist. Religion I figured was about coming together. But the “in group” and “out group” were even more fiercely delineated at Trinity Baptist Church than in Miss MacAulay’s class.

We actually sang a song with the following lyrics…
One door, and only one
And yet its sides are two,
Inside and outside,
On which side are you?

Christians were the “in group” and all other religions were the “out group.” This divisiveness and superiority is what eventually drove me away from my childhood faith. Until I realized this attitude was not a fault of Christianity, but an outgrowth of the faulty interpretation of many of its followers.

A Muslim friend of mine named Aleema was instrumental in this discovery. Aleema was a roommate of mine in college and she shared with me her belief that all religions were trying to describe the indescribable and could be measured by their efficacy in promoting kindness and acceptance of all beings. She didn’t like the word “tolerance” because she felt the word implied a stomaching or enduring something. She preferred the word “embrace,” a word that carried with it no sense of resistance or distaste.

To Aleema, I was not someone in the out group she was enduring for the sake of propriety, I was a friend and fellow seeker she could embrace wholeheartedly. The essays in this new book, Friendship & Faith, do more than tolerate other faiths and their practitioners.

They celebrate and embrace friends bound together on a spiritual path.

There is no “in” and no “out.”

Only together.


Maggie Rowe

Care to read more?

Maggie Rowe is a writer for film and TV, including work on the hit series Arrested Development. She also produces the live Comedy Central stage show SitnSpin, Los Angeles’ longest running spoken-word series. And, she is the author of a critically acclaimed memoir Sin Bravely about her struggle to overcome the religious rigidity of her own upbringing. In April 2017, ReadTheSpirit online magazine featured an interview with Maggie about her book and her ongoing work.

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Rabbi Marla Hornsten: Heeding the wisdom, ‘Find for yourself teacher, acquire for yourself a friend’

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Temple Israel

I was asked to write an opening piece for this newly expanded edition of Friendship & Faith just as Jews were heading into the High Holy Day season. For Jews, this is perhaps the most important time of year and for rabbis, in particular, the most stressful. But when I sat down to read these stories, all anxiety I had about the approaching holidays disappeared, and I couldn’t put the book down.

I suddenly realized that tears were streaming down my face.

I was so moved as I read about these personal experiences of having immigrated to the United States, of moving from place to place, of encountering unfamiliar people, practices and rituals. And, I was struck by what these stories have in common: how each of them found a friend, someone who could simply hold a hand, share a story, or help out from time to time.

I was taken by the story of Ayesha Kahn and her relationship with Libby her 80-year-old neighbor, that began with a courageous knock on the door.

I was struck by how quickly bonds are created when people share a traumatic event even if they are from opposite sides of the world, as in the story by Najah Bazzy.

I was reminded how our own personal experiences have the potential to change other peoples’ lives as Parwin Anwar who, having fled Afghanistan, used that journey to bridge the cultural divide for new immigrants in the United States.

All of the stories in this book remind us of the power of friendship, and that through the relationships that we create, we are far more alike that we might ever have imagined.

Jewish Talmud instructs: “Find for yourself teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot 1:6) It’s an interesting directive. Why are teachers and friends so important that the Talmud would command these types of relationships? Are they meant to be the same person or different people who take on different responsibilities? In my mind, I think we can find both a teacher and a friend in the same person.

In my life, I have been blessed by dear friends from varied backgrounds and traditions. Over the years, they have provided support, encouragement, and inspiration, and every step of the way, they have also taught me something important even as we share diverse life experiences, ideals and beliefs. I truly believe that these relationships have made me the person that I am today because through their friendship, they challenged me, cheered me on and even pushed me beyond my comfort zone.

Too often, however, we take our friends for granted, not recognizing how important they are in our lives, and frankly, how important we are in theirs. Maybe that’s why we need to be commanded to build these relationships. Maybe it’s a reminder to us that as human beings, relationships are integral to who we are, having people in our lives who knew us “back when…”—and at the same time, meeting people as we are now. One thing we learn from this book (though there are many things) is that the more we are willing to share of ourselves and the more we are willing to risk opening ourselves to new people and new possibilities, the greater the reward.

In this day and age, social media has changed our ideas about friendship. I find that we focus on how many friends we have on Facebook, and how many people have “liked” a post. But the truth is, most of these “friends” are just people we know. Creating meaningful friendships takes work. As we become more mature, we find that friendship doesn’t “just happen” like it did when we were kids on the playground. Genuine friendships take time, commitment, courage, and follow through.

My mother always told me, “It’s better to have a few good friends than a lot of acquaintances.”

I hope the stories told in this book remind us of the value of friendship. I hope they encourage us to reach out to the person sitting alone, knock on a neighbor’s door, welcome the newcomer into our communities and our lives. As I think about my friends, I can’t help but hum the song that I learned back in Girl Scouts: “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.”

I pray that all of our friendships be precious ones; may they continue to teach us, challenge us, support us, and celebrate with us throughout our lives.

Care to learn more?

Rabbi Hornsten

In 2000, Rabbi Marla Hornsten became the first woman rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, one of the nation’s largest Reform congregations.

Her online biography includes: “As the first woman rabbi at Temple Israel, she is proud to have created a variety of women’s programming including a monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s spirituality group, mikveh tours and immersion experiences. She has written many healing services for both men and women using the mikveh. … She also is committed to working to prevent domestic abuse in families and to guiding couples in establishing healthy relationships.

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As the voice of Doctor No echoes from Las Vegas, can we collectively respond with love?

Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting site, Las Vegas Strip, Nevada. The shooter’s hotel is at left. The festival site is at right behind the two gray towers.

for ReadTheSpirit magazine

Stephen Paddock in a widely shared photo from social media.

How can we respond to the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, when the gunman’s dark motives remain such a mystery? There was no war cry from Stephen Paddock. No manifesto awaiting publication. No suicide video. No affiliation with an infamous group.

The shooter’s description by his younger brother gives us one clue. Eric Paddock describes his brother, Stephen, as a “no-ties, no-attached kind of guy, a no-help-from-someone-else kind of guy, a standalone guy.” Eric says that Stephen committed the Las Vegas atrocity “100 percent by himself.” Stephen had  “no church, no political affiliations.”

Every day since the rampage, newspaper headlines have tried to plumb the depths of this mystery. We want to know the killer’s motivation. What spawned his maniacal action? Not being able to wrap our minds around Paddock’s evil motivation leaves us feeling vulnerable. The Washington Post wrapped up its reporting this past weekend with this headline: Las Vegas gunman left behind trail of carnage and clues but no ‘clear motive or reason why.’

The New York Times team came to the same vague conclusion: “The mystery of who he was has only seemed to deepen.”

Perhaps that’s true. But some passages in the Times story remind us of an earlier, infamous character from popular culture. First, consider these excerpts from the Times team about Stephen Paddock:

  • “From an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone. He cycled through a series of jobs he thought would make him rich.” And, eventually, he did become wealthy through investments in real estate.
  • “Some who met him described him as arrogant, with a strong sense of superiority. People in his life bent to his will, even his mother and brother. He went out of his way for no one.”
  • “Mr. Paddock cherished his solitude. … In 2003, he got his pilot’s license, eventually taking the extra step to get an instrument rating so that he could legally fly in cloudy conditions with limited visibility. … The message was clear: Mr. Paddock was a man who did not want to be seen.”
  • “His methodical and systematic mind had turned in a lethal and unpredictable new direction.”


Doctor No in the movie version of Ian Fleming’s novel.

Nearly 60 years ago, Doctor No stepped onto the world stage as one of author Ian Fleming’s most notable villains in the James Bond series of novels that later were turned into blockbuster movies. There are striking resemblances between Stephen Paddock and Doctor No. Like Fleming’s evil genius—who chose the name “No” as a rebuke to life itself—Paddock ultimately responded to life with a deafening: No!

Stephen Paddock clearly was a Doctor No kind of guy. In spite of being a gambling man, Paddock didn’t want to live with the vulnerable gamble of being a full, connected human being. Like Doctor No, Paddock chose to live with the illusion of power, the illusion of invulnerability.

Evil is a mystery. As with any real mystery, the more we know, the deeper grows the mystery. Doctor No personified the evil of supreme indifference and mania for power. Nearly every enemy of James Bond, at some point, captured Bond and made a personal confession to him. Doctor No’s is the longest confession of any of the evil legion in Fleming’s series of novels.

Here are just a few of the lines from this evil figure, described by Fleming as having a face with “no anger in it … nothing but a supreme indifference.”

  • In the novel, Doctor No argues, “All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the artists, the philosophers, the religious leaders—all maniacs. … I am as you correctly say, a maniac—a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power.”
  • Doctor No also says, “Power is sovereignty.”
  • And he explains, “I changed my name to Julius No—the Julius after my father and the No for my rejection of him and of all authority.”
  • Doctor No concludes, “I had to learn what my tools were before I put them to use on my next goal—total security from physical weaknesses, from material dangers and from the hazards of living. Then, Mister Bond, from that secure base, armored even against the casual slings and arrows of the world, I would proceed to the achievement of power—the power, Mister Bond, to do unto others what had been done unto me, the power of life and death, the power to decide, to judge, the power of absolute independence from outside authority.”


In the novel, James Bond rebuts Dr. No’s claim that his wealth and weaponry and indifference to killing make him a powerful man. Bond says, “That is only the illusion of power, Doctor No. Any man with a loaded revolver has the power of life and death over his neighbor. Other people beside you have murdered in secret and got away with it. In the end they generally get their deserts. A greater power than they possess is exerted upon them by the community.”

Ahh! Therein lies the spiritual truth that, as we write this reflection, we hope you may share with others: Yes, this kind of evil is a mystery! Yes, this kind of deadly destructive power is unfathomable! Yet, there is another powerful mystery that can stir among us: Love. Compassion. Community.

As you watched the news reports from Las Vegas, weren’t you equally mystified by the courage and sacrifice of people who responded in the face of such carnage and peril? Some people responded by risking their own lives to shield the bodies of both loved ones—and complete strangers. Astonishing courage! Others picked up bleeding bodies and ran toward hoped-for help, exposing and risking their own lives as they darted among the bullets. First responders moved toward danger, not away from it. Such love and self-less compassion are mysteries!

In Ben Pratt’s book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, Pratt writes extensively about Doctor No’s denial of life itself—his supreme indifference. Pratt says that a core struggle in defeating such evil lies in overcoming the sin that traditional Christianity calls “accidie.” At one point in the book, Pratt writes:

“With a loss of faith in God, we make ourselves our own god and claim our own power. Therefore, accidie is the root of cruelty, malice, snobbery, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and avarice. When a person confronts accidie, he or she faces a pivotal spiritual crossroads where the choice reflects moral courage—or moral cowardice.”

In Las Vegas, we witnessed the horrific impact of utter moral indifference from the inscrutable mind and heart of Stephen Paddock. And we witnessed the heights of moral courage. Both astonishing. Both, at their heart: spiritual mysteries.

The question now is: Can we respond in some meaningful way?


In the face of such great mysteries, we encourage people to respond with spiritual disciplines to restore spiritual vitality. Among the most helpful we have found over many years of teaching and counseling, are: singing, praying, manual labor, maintenance of community, grieving, gratitude and, let’s not forget—joy.

Countless Americans are stunned, this week, in the face of the explosion from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. We seem unable to act. What can we do from this distance? How can we respond in the face of such mystery?

The questions we would begin to raise, this week, are part of a spiritual inventory we recommend for individuals and small-group discussion to confront feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil. One critical antidote to this accidie—this torpor that leaves us unable to take action—is to restore joy in our lives. In such an inventory, we ask questions such as these:

  • How long has it been since you sang with great joy?
  • If you once were joyous—and are no longer so—what squelched or crushed the joy in your soul?
  • What feeling replaced your passion and vitality?

The only healthy way to cope with our vulnerability at moments like this is to lean into the healthy, life-giving mysteries of human life with humility and gratitude. Doing so will make us more loving and point us toward courage and service.

So let’s face these mysteries of human life. Yes, we are incredibly vulnerable. Right now, we have the twin capacities to be malignantly isolated—or to be courageously connected, loving and ultimately joyous about life.

The shootings in Las Vegas pose a deep spiritual challenge for all of us.

So, let’s use the frightening reality of our vulnerability to our advantage! Together, let’s lift up songs of great joy and love. Let’s celebrate and draw around us a compassionate community. And, while we do so, let’s make sure to welcome all the other vulnerable pilgrims we find along the way.

Care to read more?

One easy step is to explore the writings of Benjamin Pratt in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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