The James Martin SJ inteview on ‘Jesus: A Pilgrimage’ to Jerusalem

Cover of James Martin book Jesus A Pilgrimage

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

“Jerusalem stirs the imagination of billions of people and is the beating heart of our world today.”

That’s the conclusion of a powerful new IMAX film, which is narrated by the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbach) and promotes both tourism and peaceful co-existence in the holy city. (You can watch a preview of the movie here.) That idea of Jerusalem as a life-changing destination also runs through the popular Jesuit author James Martin’s latest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Martin is famous as America magazine’s Editor at Large, regularly writing about Christianity for a huge audience—but he admits in this new book that, for decades, he rejected the idea of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He resisted for many reasons: It’s just a tourist trap, he told himself. Or, if he did go, then what he would see in the “Holy Land” might conflict in jarring ways with his own fond images of Bible stories.

He admits he was surprised by this journey! When friends all but pushed him onto an airplane bound for Israel, Martin writes that the experience turned out to be “one of the high points of my life.”

Now, he can’t imagine why he waited so long to make this pilgrimage! In the book, he describes the trip as “overwhelming. It was almost unbelievable to visit the places where Jesus had lived. When I first caught sight of the Sea of Galilee, its shimmering blue-green waters surrounded by pinkish sandy hills under a blazing sun, it was like a dream.” He adds, “the pilgrimage taught me things that I had not learned from books.”

The result is an inspirational memoir that stands as a fresh perspective on Jesus. The book starts with Jesus’s birth and follows sequentially through his crucifixion and beyond to Emmaus. Each chapter includes some of Martin’s travel narrative—truly the best parts in this page-turner of a book. Then, in each case, he adds a bit of Bible study that is both scholarly and inspirational, perfectly pitched for general readers. Remember that Martin is popular with his young and old readers, these days, because of his fluid, and sometimes even amusing, magazine-style prose. This book definitely is a “mash up” of styles—but Martin makes it work!

This is a great choice for small-group discussion. The book’s 18 chapters could let you run a series over an entire season of the year, or you could pick favorite chapters for a shorter series. Word of Warning: If you use this book in your congregation, plan ahead to investigate options for participants to take their own pilgrimage. (Consider getting people excited by inviting them to see the Jerusalem movie.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed James Martin SJ. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JAMES MARTIN SJ
ON ‘JESUS: A PILGRIMAGE’

DAVID: America magazine lists you as Editor at Large. Our Catholic readers are familiar with America, but many of our other readers may not know that this is a century-old publication that combines journalism with Christian inspiration. Tell us a bit more.

James Martin on a New York rooftopJAMES: America is a national Catholic weekly magazine that’s been around since 1909 and I’ve been here for the last 15 years, most recently as Editor at Large. As a Jesuit priest, I live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; and part of poverty means that everything I earn goes to my religious order. This is true of my work with the magazine, which is owned by the Jesuits, and it’s true of this book. All proceeds from this book go to support our ministry here at America. I don’t get a penny myself.

DAVID: Beyond the pages of America, more than 80,000 people are connected to you through Facebook. I checked on your Facebook stats and they’re very impressive: In mid May, you had 25,000 Facebook friends “talking about” you and your posts. And this is impressive, too: Facebook reports that you’re popular with people aged 24 to 54—so this isn’t a case of a bunch of Catholic senior citizens reading your material. These are lively young adults.

JAMES: A few years ago, a publisher suggested I start a Facebook page and my first reaction was: “Forget about it!” I thought it wasn’t worth it. Now? It’s become a big part of my ministry as a Jesuit priest. It’s a way to share information, videos, photos, meditations and prayers with people all over the world. And I’m amazed at the number of people who respond and tell me they’ve found it helpful.

It’s all about bringing people to God. That’s why I now see it as such an important part of what I do as a Jesuit. I get questions about people’s spiritual lives. I get requests for prayers. I get beautiful comments from people telling me different ways that they’ve met God through what I post. I especially like writing prayers and meditations throughout the day, then posting them there on Facebook. The most moving thing I’ve experienced recently is a woman who came up to me at a religious-education congress I attended. She said, “I’m a mother of four and I’m largely at home all day. And, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your Facebook posts. They’re a link for me to the Catholic and Christian world.”

A “MASH UP” ON THE LIFE OF JESUS

DAVID: You offer all kinds of things, day by day, on that Facebook page and I suspect that’s why you felt so free to publish this “mash up” of a book on the life of Jesus.

JAMES: I’d say this book is a straight Life of Christ, but written in these three forms. There’s the story of my real-life pilgrimage, but then I do add the latest in Bible scholarship about whatever I am considering in that chapter. And then I try to offer a message for readers about what all of this means for them today in their daily lives.

DAVID: And, when you say “Bible scholarship,” we’re talking about references to some famous scholars: Raymond E. Brown, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, N.T. Wright to name a few.

JAMES: There are a lot of books that just summarize the life and times of Jesus for readers and take the Bible stories at face value, so they ignore the historical research. There are books that just describe someone’s pilgrimage. I think the scholarship is important, too, so I wanted to include that. I’m trying to do all three in one book.

There is something naturally appealing about Jesus and that’s the person I want to introduce to people. This book is for everyone from the doubtful seeker to the longtime church person. I don’t assume readers know anything about Jesus. So, I hope that all readers can gather around this book and find out about the person of Jesus Christ.

DAVID: I agree with you. This is a book someone could enjoy without knowing anything about Jesus or the Bible. You walk readers through the whole story.

JAMES: I was very intentional that this not be just a book for Catholics. I do speak about my own Catholic background because—but Jesus wasn’t a Catholic. The gospels aren’t “Catholic books.” My book isn’t about Catholicism. Frankly, Jesus didn’t come for just one group of people.

“FORMS OF CHRISTIANITY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF”

James Martin in the Galilee

James Martin, SJ, in the Galilee.

DAVID: The stories you share from your travels include lots of men and women who aren’t Catholic. Israel-and-Palestine is an amazingly diverse little corner of the world, isn’t it?

JAMES: When you go to Jerusalem, as an American, you see forms of Christianity you’ve never heard of. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is divided into so many parts, controlled by so many different Christian groups, that you realize how frustratingly elusive Jesus’s wish—that they may all be one—has been through the years. It also reminds you that Jesus Christ appeals to all kinds of people, all around the world, not just Westerners. One of the most interesting experiences was our visit to the Church of St. Mark, a Syriac Orthodox church near the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.

DAVID: I’ve been there. It’s a bit off the beaten track and pilgrims who sweep through Jerusalem without much time may never find the place. But it’s one of those little wonders you discover on the side streets of the Old City.

JAMES: I end the book with that scene, because our guide at St. Mark’s sang the Our Father in Aramaic for us. It was so unexpected!

DAVID: You write, “She opened her mouth and in a strong, clear voice began singing. Our new friend wasn’t an opera singer, but it was probably one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard—because it was in Jesus’s language. She sang in the lilting cadences of Aramaic, more and more strongly as she went on, and her prayer echoed throughout the ancient church that we had found by accident on our last day of our pilgrimage.”

I’ve got to say, having worked on several reporting projects based in Jerusalem, throughout my career—it’s that kind of amazing little scene that shows your readers the wonders of this city! And, I love it that you also include the surprises that take pilgrims in other directions, as well. One scene that comes to mind is your visit to what scholars believe was the real site of Jesus’s own baptism in the Jordan River. There’s a lovely spot further to the north, where a lot of tour guides tell you Jesus was baptized—but the real spot is pretty, well …

JAMES: It’s “pretty gross.” That’s what my friend told me to discourage me.

DAVID: It’s called Qasr el-Yahud and you describe it vividly in your book. Way back in the year 2000, I was there as a journalist covering an Israeli-government convoy of journalists and tourism officials to take a look at the site that the government planned to finally open up for pilgrims. It was a startling place even at that time. I remember people getting off those buses, in our convoy, and being so moved at the sight that they went into the water and some of them actually drank the stuff!

JAMES: It’s definitely a very unusual holy site. It’s a decommissioned militarized zone in the middle of the desert and it’s very simple. There are some bleachers on the Israeli side, now, that go down toward the water. What’s most surprising is the water itself, which I describe as “neon green, more like Mountain Dew than water.” That’s the result of a lot of pollution and a lot of irrigation further to the north and the lowering of water levels. This was the opposite of the Sea of Galilee, but it was a fascinating experience.

DAVID: Well, I enjoyed reading that section. And, overall, your book already is doing very well in terms of sales and reader reviews on Amazon. I see there’s also an audio version, which readers could get through Amazon.

JAMES: It’s read by Yours Truly—all 18 hours of it. There will be a paperback edition, which I’m working on now.

DAVID: I’ve interviewed you, over the years, about some of your other books. Most recently, we talked about your book on religious humor, Between Heaven and Mirth. I get the sense, though, that this new book is special among the 10 or so you’ve written. Is that fair to say?

JAMES: Yes, I would call this the most satisfying writing experience I’ve ever had. It certainly was the most enjoyable. I loved spending time with the gospel texts as I wrote. That was my favorite part of this book. I learned so much. And, now, I hope readers will, as well.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChristianGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Watch a preview of ‘Jerusalem’ the IMAX movie

Jerusalem the IMAX movie poster

Click the movie poster to visit the official website for the ‘Jerusalem’ movie, which provides much more information about the film and regional showings.

Reviews from a wide range of journalists are raving about Jerusalem, a 45-minute large-format movie distributed by National Geographic with an impressive array of partners involved in the production. Just how wide is this range of reviews? In Washington D.C., for example, both the mainstream Washington Post and the famously conservative Washington Times praised the film and urged readers to go see it.

The film’s official website has more information, including listings of regional screenings. Or, you may prefer to read the Wikipedia overview of the film first.

The film’s major strength is that this crew was given access to film in many areas usually barred to such media projects. Given the IMAX-scale production that mainly means the cameras could be strapped to helicopters that flew over and around some of the world’s most sacred landmarks. You simply won’t see these eye-popping vistas anywhere else.

The voice narrating the film now is familiar to millions of viewers worldwide: Benedict Cumberbach, the BBC’s newest Sherlock Holmes and also a co-star in movies from 12 Years a Slave to parts of the Star Trek and Hobbit movie series.

The filmmakers’ own explanation of this project is a fair summary of what you’ll see, if you attend a showing: “Our film is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It embraces the idea that Jerusalem is many cities: imagined and real; past and present; Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular. We are trying to answer the question: Why Jerusalem? What is it about this tiny space that made it the ultimate prize of empires and the object of longing for so many different cultures over thousands of years?”

YOU SHOULD SEE a video screen below. Click to view a 7-minute preview. (And, yes, it’s worth all 7 minutes!) If you don’t see a screen here, try clicking this story’s headline to reload the page, which should properly display the video screen.

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’

COVER Barbara Brown Taylor Learning To Walk In The Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

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

Got a love-hate relationship with organized religion? Finding more fear than faith in your daily life? Let Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s most popular inspirational writers, be your guide in Learning to Walk in the Dark.

A new book from Barbara is big news—an occasion for a cover story in the April 28 issue of TIME magazine! Readers nationwide love and continue to read her earlier memoirs about rediscovering faith in troubling times. But, many of her loyal readers were wondering if she had … well, vanished. Book buyers last spotted her Leaving Church (2007) and then building An Altar in the World (2009). Then, there were no more books for five years.

Taylor chuckles at the suggestion she has fallen silent. “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

Undergraduates at Piedmont College have no trouble finding her. She paused for the following interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in the midst of grading student papers and a busy schedule of end-of-term events. In her endowed chair as Butman Professor of Religion she teaches a wide range of classes on the Bible, creative writing and world religions.

Attendees at many conferences and special occasions, coast to coast, hear her preaching and talking and reading from her books. She maintains a robust schedule of public events.

But when a new book arrives, this is an occasion for individual reading, small group discussion, quoting from Barbara in Sunday sermons and homilies. And for the editors at TIME: It’s a national news event. ReadTheSpirit magazine agrees and we present our own …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR ON
‘LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK’

DAVID: The first thing we should tell readers: This really is a book about walking in the dark. You tell vivid stories about your experiences in dark caves, walking along dark shorelines, looking at stars. You open the book by describing to readers how you hauled an air mattress out into the back yard, flopped down on your back—and watched the whole symphony of day turning to night. This isn’t just a theological metaphor. This is an invitation to look at the night sky.

Barbara Brown Taylor author of Learning to Walk in the DarkBARBARA: Yes, I did go out and actually experience the darkness. I felt I had to do some of that to rescue this book from abstraction. Talking about darkness is like opening up a Rorschach inkblot and inviting all kinds of associations to unfold. I felt that I had to put some bodily heft into this exploration. I did start with a lot of reading. I read every book that came my way with darkness or night in the title. My reading carried me from visits to observatories to concerns about light pollution to lots of stories about dark emotions—and, then of course, to the “dark night of the soul” and into theology—plus books by people like Karen Armstrong, Phyllis Tickle and Harvey Cox looking at the future of faith in dark times. I read a lot and thought about all of these perspectives—so it seemed very important to engage the concept of darkness in as many physical ways as I could. And, yes, I walked out into the dark myself.

DAVID: There’s a family story in the book that I’m sure will touch everyone who cares about children. You and your husband Ed live on a working farm in northern Georgia. You raise chickens and, one day, a young relative was visiting with you—and you thought you would teach her something delightful about the night. But—it didn’t unfold as you had hoped.

BARBARA: She was about 7 years old when she came to visit. She had been born and raised in the city and had been given all of the good safe guidelines parents give children about the dark. She also had suffered from a sleep disruption, night terrors, so she had some scary experiences of darkness.

When she came to visit, I thought a good thing to do was to invite her to walk with me out to the chicken house at night.

DAVID: You write in the book that the chickens are more docile at night and they sound like they are “chuckling” to one another when you go into the chicken house. The idea sounds delightful.

BARBARA: It wasn’t far from the house, about 50 yards down the hill from our garage across the grass. The moon was bright that night so we really didn’t need a flashlight, but I took one anyway to be sure we could see where we were going. I was walking along, figuring she was behind me, talking to her as I went.

Then, I realized she wasn’t answering any more. I realized she had stopped somewhere behind me. I could hear her crying. I realized that my definition of safety didn’t have anything to do with her definition of safety. I tell that story in the book to show that not everyone has the same experience of darkness and the night. I’m not telling readers that everyone should go out, charge into the shadows and explore everything in the night. But I am encouraging readers to explore the things we’ve been taught about the dark and see for ourselves if they’re really true. If we try this, we will be surprised.

DAVID: I don’t think it’s a “spoiler” to tell readers: By the end of this book, you’ve touched on a lot of our fears and anxieties—and our deep desires as well—as we live through these turbulent times. The book closes with a very strong message of reassurance. You’re telling us, to borrow a line we read so many times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. It’s in Genesis, repeatedly in fact, and Moses repeats it in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. It’s in the era of the kings, the prophets and the Psalms; Isaiah repeats it. Then, in the New Testament, angels repeat, “Do not be afraid!” Of course, Jesus says the same thing.

HARD LIVES & SIMPLE GRAVES / DARKNESS & LIGHT

Walker Evans a grave in Hale County Alabama

JAMES AGEE described in detail the graveyard he explored with photographer WALKER EVANS. Graves were marked with hand-hewn wooden headboards and footboards and the red clay was mounded up down the center like “an inverted boat.” These were graves of “the poorest” men, women and children, Agee wrote, but the graves were “decorated” with objects the families loved: milk glass, china dinner plates and, on a number of graves, light bulbs were screwed into the raised red soil. Several of Evans’ haunting graveyard photographs are available from the Library of Congress, although none of the light bulb photos are in the Library’s online collection.

DAVID: By the end of this book, at least some of your readers may learn not to be so afraid of the dark. But you also point out that countless men and women around the world long for light to improve their impoverished lives.

In America, there was a major campaign for rural electrification and many parts of the world don’t have lighting at night, to this day. There’s a very poignant scene in your book in which you describe the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans traveling through the rural South in the 1930s. They happened upon a graveyard used by the poorest of farming families in which loved ones placed symbols of great hopes on the graves.

BARBARA: Reading Agee and Evans, once again, reinvigorated my imagination of that era of rural electrification. I live in a part of the rural South where we now take artificial light for granted. But, not too many years ago, our farm would have been off the grid—not by choice but by economics. As I wrote this book, I kept in mind that—while I am writing about a longing for darkness—there are so many people who long for light.

In re-reading Agee and Evans, there is a passage where they describe this burial ground for poor tenant farmers in Alabama. On top of the graves, their families had placed things people treasured. On top of some graves were dinner plates and pieces of milk glass. They also found lightbulbs screwed into the red clay covering some graves and blue-green glass insulators, too. This reminds us of the economics of darkness, as well, and in many parts of the world, it’s only the relatively wealthy who have the privilege of longing for darkness—because most people are poor and they live in darkness every night.

There are so many ways to think about this. Here’s another: The darkest places in the world are the places where we can see the most stars.

DANGER IN THE DARK

DAVID: There are dangers in the dark, as well. I’m a life-long fan of Larry McMurtry and, in one of his Western novels, a cowboy is far out on the range when he wakes up one night and becomes convinced that he must ride off to someone’s aid. His companions beg him not to do so, because there’s no moon overhead. He does so anyway—and rides right off a cliff and dies.

You tell about hitting a drop off yourself! You walked, in the dark, along a wooden dock that you didn’t realize had been damaged by a hurricane. You didn’t know that part of the dock was missing and you fell about 13 feet, right?

BARBARA: I did! And it hurt! And when I managed to walk back there in daylight I realized that I had fallen very close to a board with nails sticking out. It could have been so much worse.

But I don’t want to dwell on the dangers in the dark. Sure, you can bump into things in the night. But I found so many positive stories that I didn’t expect of people’s experiences in the darkness. For example, most of us may think that it’s dangerous to go out in the dark in a big city. And, I was giving a talk about this book when a young woman stood up at a microphone and she said that she grew up in New York City. And I thought: “Oh, here it comes! Another story about dangers at night in a big city.” But, she surprised me. She said that she loves her memories of going out with her father to look at the night sky between the tall buildings. And she recalled how much she loved it when her father would take her to an observatory in the city.

And remember, there are so many people who have to be out at night. They work at night. I was fascinated by a book about midwives in England who, of course, often had to go out at night. I read about various methods people developed to keep track of where they were going even on the darkest nights.

DARKNESS ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE

DAVID: This is a book about faith as much as it is about the real world of sunlight and darkness. And, when you turned to the Bible, your first glance over the material was pretty bleak, right?

BARBARA: There are about 100 references to darkness in the Bible and if you focus just on the word searches, the verdict is unanimous: Darkness is bad news.

DAVID: But you went deeper into the text, of course.

BARBARA: Yes, I started with word searches because there are so many easy ways to do that now. At the linguistic level, darkness is almost uniformly negative from the beginning to the end of the Bible. But when I dug deeper and began to pay attention to narratives that took place at night or under cover of darkness, the whole focus changed from negative to positive. Think of God telling Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky. Or think of what happened to Jacob at night: wrestling with an angel.

DAVID: And the vision of the stairway to heaven, which came at night, produced the famous line: “Surely God was in this place—and I did not know it.”

BARBARA: These are moments of huge transformation at night. In the Nativity story, think of the shepherds looking up into a sky that is exploding with angels. Think of Magi following a star through the night. Now darkness becomes much more interesting!

‘THE BLIND HERO OF THE RESISTANCE’

Jacques-Lusseyran

JACQUES LUSSEYRAN. (As we publish this interview in spring 2014, the world just marked another Yom Hashoah, a solemn remembrance of the Holocaust. One of the many memorial websites online is Jamie Merriman-Cohen’s YomHashoah Picture Project. Click on this photo of Lusseyran to read Merriman-Cohen’s eloquent tribute to him.)

DAVID: Among the spiritual mysteries readers will discover in your book is Jacques Lusseyran, often called “the blind hero of the French Resistance.” He also was an amazing mystical writer. His most easily available book these days is And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II. But you actually quote from a specific portion of his writings: Against the Pollution of the I. Readers might be able to get that through their libraries, after meeting Lusseyran in your book.

BARBARA: He was compelling to me, first of all, because three different people recommended him to me. When I hear one or two people suggest something, I can ignore it, but not when three people recommend something. When I opened up his works, his language was so remarkable! From childhood, he was blind. He typed on a Braille typewriter, which was how he expressed himself in written word. And his language? He was able to capture mystical experiences because he wrote like an angel. He’s unparalleled in my reading—telling us unbelievable things and yet they become so believable in the way he tells them.

DAVID: He writes about how he experiences light and darkness and the mystical connection he makes is in his connection of love to inner light. Here’s one of his lines: “There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.” Your readers meet Lusseyran in just a couple of pages of your book—but he’s a good example of the unusual people readers will discover here. Learning to Walk in the Dark will take you many places you never expected to go.

And, in the end, one of the places you’re taking us is back into “the church,” to organized religion. You’re an ordained Episcopal priest.

BARBARA: Yes, and I’m proud to be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest this year.

DISCOVERING ‘NEW GUIDES’

DAVID: Much of this book is about fearlessly exploring the world in new ways. But there’s a clear message here: You hope that all of those fearful men and women inside organized religion can find new hope. I was surprised on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks ago, to be attending the church where my daughter is the pastor. She got up and preached her sermon from the Gospel stories of resurrection—combined with illustrations from your new book. I was so pleased to hear that sermon!

BARBARA: And I love hearing you tell that story!

I get invited to a lot of churches and events with church leaders. When I walk into some churches, these days, it feels like a hospice. I can smell the anxious sweat in the air. The first questions people ask me are: What can we do to reverse the tide? What can we do about losing members? How can we—well—they’re really asking: How can we not die?

It seems to me that it’s time to stop all of that worrying. All that hand wringing is only convincing people that they don’t want to come inside here with you. It’s time to say: Let’s take inventory and see what is here and see what is life giving. It’s time to decide to be alive in a new way.

Now, I can’t say that without adding: I also visit lots of vibrant churches celebrating what is truly life giving. But, I think anyone who has ever loved a community of faith has—at some point or other—been disappointed by that community. In writing this book, I discovered a lot of new guides—men and women—who calmed me down, consoled me and got me ready for whatever is next.

DAVID: I’m going to jump way back to the beginning of your book and point to a line that I’ll bet is going to be quoted in countless church bulletins and sermons in coming months: “Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.”

BARBARA: That’s the story of this book. And that’s the living definition of what it means to have faith: I’m not assured that everything’s going to be safe and all right—but I am assured because of all the others who have walked this way before. Their walking before me—and around me—convinces me that this is the way of life.

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CARE TO READ MORE?

Links to several of Barbara Brown Taylor’s earlier books are at the top of this story. You can order her book from Amazon by clicking on the book cover, at top.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural World

Interview with poet and PBS journalist Judith Valente

Overworked? Overwhelmed?

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

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

Overall, you need Judith Valente.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, my own long career has been blessed by working with other journalists around the world. I have known Judith for decades and she was among our first author interviews when we founded ReadTheSpirit magazine in 2007. At that time, we were recommending her book Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul.

You may feel that you know Judith, already, because of her many appearances as a journalist on PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly and because of her occasional NPR stories that reach a national radio audience.

Today, we are talking with Judith about two new books, perfect for the depths of mid-winter. In them, Judith writes from two perspectives about finding peace in the midst of a chaotic world. The books’ titles capture these themes. The first is, Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith. The second is, The Art of Pausing.

AND—Don’t miss the links at the end of this interview, which point to two inspiring columns about steps you can take to find greater peace in your life.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JUDITH VALENTE

DAVID: Let’s start with the dramatic scene that opens Atchison Blue: your first morning at the Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. You arrive as a polished, veteran journalist and speaker, who the sisters have brought in as a teacher. Yet, you find yourself overwhelmed.

JUDITH: I went to the monastery in 2007 to give a presentation on poetry and the soul, both at the retreat center the monastery operates and at a Benedictine college down the road. But, I was arriving at the monastery during a very hectic period in my life. I was working so hard and doing so many things that, when I arrived, I realize now that I was exhausted—mentally, physically and emotionally. On the morning I was supposed to start speaking to this retreat group, I went into the chapel alone and just sat there surrounded by these beautiful blue windows. I wondered how I was going to stand up and tell people about nourishing their souls when I hadn’t nourished my own soul in weeks.

In the chapel is an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms and the words, “Omni tempore silentio debent studere,” or “At all times, cultivate silence.”

The paradox I had been living stared me in the face: I had been traveling across the country and talking to people over and over again about the need to cultivate a contemplative life—without making time to develop my own interior life.

Something very strange happened at that moment. I began to weep. That is totally out of character for me. I don’t do that. And, in that moment, I realized: This monastery has a way of reaching out to me that I can’t get from the self-help books lining the shelves at Barnes & Noble that argue we can have it all if we just keep charging forward. As a result, I began working on these new books about how important it is to cultivate silence, or pausing, to nourish the contemplative side of life.

DAVID: I’ve known you for years and you are the very definition of a senior journalist: smart, self-assured and articulate. It’s a remarkable image to think of you sitting in this chapel, weeping. As our readers are thinking about this interview, they probably can envision a moment when they were trying to keep their own self-assured world together—and things just overwhelmed them.

JUDITH: That was a huge moment for me as a woman and as a journalist. I’ve always understood that we must keep our emotions in check. What I discovered in the monastery was that the women living there were not afraid to be vulnerable. They have almost zero façade in their lives. Here I was: a journalist who is used to meeting people every day and trying to spin whatever they’re telling you into a good story. Suddenly, I was surrounded by women who have no spin. They’re completely open about their own flaws and shortcomings.

DAVID: We meet some of them in this book.

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

JUDITH: Yes, I write about an early encounter with sister Lillian Harrington, this 90-year-old sister who was so honest with me about her own life. She understood that she was talking to me, a journalist, and yet she didn’t hesitate to say that she had misgivings about her choice of a religious life. She doesn’t always find it easy to believe there is a life after death, she told me. We can’t be sure of it, she said. She was so open that I found this refreshing. That honesty opened the curtain for me to be a little more vulnerable myself. I was not prepared to be so deeply moved both by the stories that the sisters told and the lives they lived.

DAVID: Readers will find themselves swept into the pages of Atchison Blue, I think, by just this kind of story. And, along with our interview, we also will publish that column you’ve written about your visit to the monastery and 10 insights to ponder about finding peace in one’s life.

JUDITH: Here’s something that isn’t in the book, which we had to cut out to make the book a manageable length. I spent time with one sister who had been a well-respected part of the community for many years: Sister Loretta Schirmer. She had held a number of leadership positions and, at one point, I went into her room to talk with her. She was nonchalant and almost dry in her recitation of all the positions she had held over the years.

Then, she began talking about working as a seamstress and that, very late in life, she was now helping her community by sewing and repairing altar cloths and garments for the sisters. As she talked about this work, she began to cry. “My sewing is the one thing I have left that I can give to my community,” she said.

And, I began to cry, too. At that point she was 87 and was still determined to serve her community. I remember the tears were just streaming down my face. That was totally unprofessional to be crying like that, while I was talking to her as a journalist. Yet, I was just moved to tears by this women who had held so many very important positions over the years—and, yet, even at the point in life when I met her, she still was focusing her life on service, the service she could still provide.

DAVID: I just typed her name into Google and we’ll share a link to her obituary with our readers. Sister Loretta died in May, 2013.

A TIME-TESTED SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE

DAVID: You explain in Atchison Blue that the whole culture of these communities dates back many, many centuries. We really are reaching back to the early men and women who went out into the desert to achieve more spiritual focus in their communities. In other words, this isn’t some kind of new spiritual technique you’re teaching.

JUDITH: That’s right, this isn’t some new-wave-voodoo we’re discovering. This really is the art of our faith that dates back to within a few hundred years of Jesus living on this earth. Monastic life was a reaction against the codification of Christianity by the state. These desert fathers and mothers were trying to get back to what was essential in Christ’s message: service, prayer, praise, and simplicity. This is what Jesus emulated in his time on earth and they were trying to remove themselves from the system that was emerging as the state, the Roman Empire, legitimized Christianity.

DAVID: It’s rather surprising to many people to discover that these communities have survived—and many are thriving—all over the U.S. They’re in other parts of the world, too. Most of us have simply overlooked them.

JUDITH: I would put it more strongly: Monasteries are the best open secret in our world. They’re right there, yet many people do overlook them. Or, people may be aware of them, but may think that these are people who want to be completely removed from the world.

In fact, hospitality toward strangers is a major monastic value. People can go to virtually any monastery in America as a guest. Try it. Ask to stay there as a guest for a few days, or even a few weeks. You can participate in the prayer life of the community, the Liturgy of the Hours. This is even true at Trappist monasteries, some of the most cloistered monasteries. And, of course, most monasteries welcome people as volunteers for short periods and even for long periods.

THE ART OF PAUSING
SHARING PRAYERS IN HAIKU

Click on the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

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

DAVID: This leads me to your other book, The Art of Pausing. If Atchison Blue is an introduction to the whole idea of visiting monasteries—then The Art of Pausing is more like a little spiritual toolkit to tuck into your bag as you go about a busy day. Is that fair to say, do you think?

JUDITH: Yes. As a really busy person myself, I saw the need for people like me to have a little book we can carry around to read bite-sized bits of contemplation in the middle of our jam-packed days.

DAVID: You say “bite-sized.” We should explain that the book’s format is a short haiku on the left-hand page, matched with a short meditation in prose. The titles of each two-page set is an attribute of God. This idea cuts across religious boundaries. For example, Muslim devotions revolve around the 99 Names (or attributes) of God.

Some of your titles are God, the Straightener; God, the Protector; God, the Unity; God, the Patient; and God, the Opener.

JUDITH: I am a poet, but it takes a long time to write a good poem. There are poems I’ve worked on for more than a year and I’m still not satisfied with them. But I can write a Haiku every day. So, in working on this book, each day I would pause for a short period of time; I would try to connect in a deeper way with the world around me, and I would write these three lines of a haiku.

DAVID: Tell a little bit about how this idea took hold.

JUDITH: As a reporter, I was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemane to do a news segment on the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. I was introduced to Brother Paul Quenon who also happens to be a poet. He had known Merton. He told me that one of the things he does as part of his daily practice is to write a three-line haiku. After meeting him, I asked if we could exchange haikus; and he thought that was a fabulous idea. So, we would send each other our daily haiku.

The two books actually are interrelated. While I was with the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica, at lunchtime they would begin eating with a reading from what they called the Book of Days. Each one was a couple of lines from scripture and a brief reflection on it. This was just enough—a moment of contemplation—in the middle of each day.

That’s where I got the idea that we should put a haiku together with a brief reflection and, with Brother Paul Quenon, we finished this book for busy people who need a way to offer just a moment of contemplation in their otherwise hectic day.

You’d be surprised how many people are telling me that this book inspired them to try writing a Haiku every day!

DAVID: It’s a form of poetry with a mixed heritage. Students in school are assigned to write them by their teachers. Sometimes, I think, people wind up pretty skeptical of this form of poetry. But, I like the form. In fact, I’ve taught workshops for journalists on long-form writing that start with assigning each writer to summarize his or her project in a haiku. If they can accomplish that, then the long-form prose they are writing flows naturally from a central focus.

JUDITH: As ancient as haiku is—it’s a perfect art form for the Twitter generation. There are a lot of people who’ve contacted me through Facebook just so they can send me their haiku.

I’m very pleased to see this catch on—and it’s a point I make in the introduction to the book. We hope people will start writing these little three-line holy sentences everyday and will begin to exchange them. We hope people will find a friend who also likes the idea. If you don’t know each other very well, you will after the daily haikus go back and forth.

SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES FOR THE FUTURE

DAVID: I find both of these books inspiring, because they demonstrate the vitality of monastic wisdom for our contemporary world.

JUDITH: That’s something I hope more people will understand. And I admit that I used to think of monastic living as a throwback. It was like: “Will the last living monk turn out the lights.”

Now, I look at this wisdom and these experiences as a light into the future. These men and women represent a window into values we desperately need in our society. They emphasize community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over consumption—and silence over the constant nattering that surrounds us today.

DAVID: Let’s close with another example.

JUDITH: Here’s one I can share: There’s this little saying I learned at the monastery: Before I begin speaking, I ask myself three questions. Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? And, is it necessary?

Now, when you start applying that standard to what comes out of your mouth, you’re going to be a lot more quiet than you might have been.

And here’s another one: They don’t do this anymore, but for decades the sisters had a practice whenever two or more sisters were assigned to perform a task. They would bow to each other and say: “Have patience with me.”

I’ve often mused on how much more pleasant my work would be if, before I start an assignment, I bow to the producer, to the audio technicians and to each person I encounter and ask, “Have patience with me.”

That’s such a counter-cultural idea, yet it is so central to monastic communities to see and to honor the sacredness in the other person.

DAVID: And that’s a perfect sign that I should stop asking you questions and recommend that our readers learn more from your wonderful new books Judith. Plus, you’ve sent us a column that shares even more of these insights about finding peace. So, let’s move right to the next links …

Care to read more?

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

GET THE BOOKS! Click on either of the book covers shown with today’s story—or there are text links to Amazon in the introduction to today’s interview.

JUDITH’S REPORTING: Make a point of finding and watching PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly. In addition, Judith works both regionally for public radio and occasionally you will hear her reports on NPR stations nationwide.

CONTACT JUDITH: Her personal website, www.JudithValente.com, has more information about her books, the events where she appears, and also contains further information about contacting her and following her on Facebook.

PLEASE SHARE THIS INTERVIEW WITH FRIENDS: Click on the blue-“f” Facebook buttons or the small envelope-shaped icons to share the news about Judith Valente and her work with others.

Looking for renewal close to home?

FROM JUDITH VALENTE: We’re very pleased to share a special column by Judith Valente, today, that describe 10 Steps Toward Peace that you may want to ponder in your own life, this year.

FROM CINDY LaFERLE: This week, we also are publishing a column by author Cindy LaFerle about a simple solution she has found to making retreats a more regular part of her life, each year.

(This interview was originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Retreating (close to home!) by Cindy LaFerle

THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending books by poet and  journalist Judith Valente. (And, don’t miss Judith’s own column on 10 steps toward rediscovering peace.) However, when we read such stories, we might get the mistaken impression that retreats are only for well-to-do people who can travel great distances. So, we invited author and columnist Cindy LaFerle to share this chapter from her book Writing Home about a simpler solution she has found.

Retreating
(Close to Home)

By CINDY LaFERLE

Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Four times a year, I indulge in a ritual that puzzles my neighbors, not to mention my family.

It goes something like this: I rise at dawn on a weekday and load my car with two large tote bags—one crammed with books, the other with pajamas and a toothbrush. I back out of the driveway quickly and disappear for twenty-four hours. The next day, I come back looking as if I’d spent a full week at five-star spa.

My sacred escape, as I call it, is a mere twenty minutes from home, but seems a universe away.

“So, did you have fun at the monastery?” my husband teases when I return.

My hideaway isn’t exactly a monastery—but it’s the next best thing. Secluded on a wooded estate in Bloomfield Hills, Manresa Jesuit Retreat House remains one of the best-kept secrets in my part of Michigan. It’s where I go when my shoulders lock up and I can’t quite silence the white noise buzzing in my head. It’s where I turn when I feel unappreciated, uninspired, overtaxed and overwhelmed.

No, Manresa doesn’t offer facials, glycol peels, pedicures or therapeutic massages. And while the historic Tudor-revival mansion graciously opens its meeting facilities to business functions and networking events, it remains, at its heart, a place for the spirit. Religious artwork and gilded icons decorate the hallways, while Stations of the Cross and Catholic statuary anchor its manicured acres of tranquil garden paths.

And nobody goes home hungry. On a recent overnight retreat, three church friends and I enjoyed heaping portions of “Jesuit cuisine”–a divine menu of real comfort food, including roast chicken, green beans, and divine, buttery mashed potatoes. And, as we quickly discovered on a midnight kitchen raid, there’s always a plate of homemade cookies left for snacking.

After dinner, my friends and I usually set aside time alone for reading and reflection. While I also read inspirational literature at home, I enjoy this genre most in the sanctuary of my private room at Manresa. (The paneled library downstairs, in fact, is where I first discovered the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen.)

Spending just a few hours this way, I feel as if my frazzled parts had been gently polished and refastened.

I highly recommend retreating to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Women, especially, need to give ourselves permission to step aside for a breather, even if our loved ones think we’re being unsociable, or, heaven forbid, neglectful. Our devotion to family and career seldom allows time to quench the soul, and few of us have a quiet place where we can pause to refuel.

Unlike health spas, where the lodgings are typically deluxe, religious retreat houses offer minimal amenities. Expect no television and very few distractions. Manresa, for example, enforces periods of silence that must be respected by all guests.

A spiritual retreat can be held in any secluded location, but be sure to plan well in advance. Leave secular worries behind and cell phones turned off. And if you’re not attending a guided retreat, prepare your own list of spiritual activities–group discussions, personal journaling, meditation, or prayer focus.

Wherever you retreat, your aim should be to return to your daily responsibilities with fresh perspective and a renewed spirit to share with others.

Care to read more?

Look around your region of the U.S. for retreat centers that are open to the public at a reasonable cost. Because retreat centers vary so widely, you might try asking a pastor, rabbi or imam in your area about sites they may recommend. If you ask friends from a similar religious background for suggestions, you’re more likely to feel comfortable when you arrive.

This column was reprinted with Cindy’s permission from her book Writing Home, which ReadTheSpirit also highly recommends. You’ll also enjoy her regular columns at www.LaFerle.com.

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Categories: Great With GroupsNatural World

The Brennan Manning interview with Greg Garrett

The Prodigal by Brennan Manning and Greg Garrett

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

BRENNAN MANNING is the reason we’re talking with Greg Garrett this week. Since ReadTheSpirit online magazine was founded in 2007, Greg Garrett has been a frequent guest, talking about each of his new books with Editor David Crumm. But, The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story is unique among Greg’s long list of titles. In the months before Brennan Manning’s death on April 27, 2013, Greg collaborated with Brennan to fulfill a final wish: to write a novel embodying Brennan’s central theme about Grace.

Brennan has such a huge following that, in the weeks since this novel was finally released, the book has racked up 25 reader reviews in Amazon, 24 of them raving about the book with 4- and 5-star reviews. That’s a remarkable outpouring of affection. In a preface to one of Manning’s earlier books, the popular musician and worship leader Michael W. Smith tries to describe Manning’s huge appeal. Smith uses words like “refreshing” and “life-changing,” “dangerous” and “transformative.”

Brennan’s chosen term was “Ragamuffin,” which he used to describe his own deeply troubled life. Grace means that God loves us, even when we are at our most troubled in life, he argued. We don’t earn God’s love. God loves each and every person, even Ragamuffins, all the time.

The journalist and best-selling author Philip Yancey knew Manning and loved his joyful compassion and his utter honesty about his many failings. In trying to capture Manning’s appeal, Yancey quotes Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

David Crumm talks with Greg Garrett about his new book, written with Brennan Manning before his death …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
GREG GARRETT ABOUT BENNAN MANNING
AND ‘THE PRODIGAL’

DAVID: Most of our readers will recognize Brennan Manning’s name and maybe the term, “Ragamuffin,” but—truth be told—a lot of readers won’t know much more about him. So, let’s start with a little background: Brennan Manning was born in New York City in the depths of the Great Depression. He served as a U.S. Marine in Korea. He was ordained as a Franciscan priest in 1963 to work with the poor. He also was an alcoholic. He destroyed many relationships in his life. And eventually, he became a worldwide sensation for preaching a message that—even in the darkest depths of our lives—God never stops loving us. Is that a fair summary?

GREG: Yes. We could say: If you wrote Brennan Manning as a character in a novel, people would have trouble believing he was real.

DAVID: Be careful there. You actually cast a Brennan Manning kind of character in this new novel you wrote with him, The Prodigal. So, tell our readers more about Brennan’s life.

GREG: Brennan was a muscular Christian in the sense that he was putting faith into action in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways. Often his faith was lived out in manual labor. He worked as a dishwasher; he worked around the docks in New Orleans; at one point, he lived in a cave in the desert. All his life, he battled with his alcoholism. He left the priesthood to get married and even that relationship didn’t work out. Central to his understanding of his own life and his understanding of God was that, in our strength, we are failures. But, with God’s help we can be something closer to what God wants us to be. The inspirational message that people took away from his talks and sermons and books was that we are loved, we are forgiven.

Many readers know that I’m a recovering fundamentalist myself, so I understand why Brennan’s message is such a breath of fresh air to so many people who live with guilt every day. One of Brennan’s central teachings is that God loves us even when we are at our most un-loveable. That doesn’t mean God wants us to remain doing un-loveable things, but God loves us even as imperfect people—even, as Brennan describes it—as Ragamuffins. That’s the radical love and forgiveness and grace that informs everything Brennan wrote and taught. And it informs this new novel—his final book—as well.

WRITING A NOVEL LIKE PEN PALS

DAVID: I’m sure readers will want to know how you collaborated on this novel. You live in Austin, Texas, and Brennan lived in New Jersey for the final phase of his life. How did this work?

GREG: Brennan knew he was in decline and the end was coming, so he had two last wishes. First, he wanted to leave a memoir and he did that with a co-author in 2011 in a book called, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.

Then, his final wish was to write a novel. People who have followed his work over the years know how much importance he placed on telling stories. He understood that, while many people will read and respond to nonfiction, there is an incredible power to move people through fiction. We share the same literary agency and, as Brennan became more feeble, his agent and my agent talked about this project. They wanted someone who wasn’t traditionally known as a “Christian novelist.” My name came up pretty quickly, I’m told. I have written novels, which we might describe as literary novels. So, the agents got us together and we started this process in the spring of 2012.

We began moving back and forth with ideas, very fast, and the process was simpler than I had imagined. At that point, he already was in long-term care in New Jersey. So, we wrote this novels as pen pals. He’d have an idea and I’d receive that. Then, I’d add to the ideas and we’d go back and forth.

DAVID: One way this new novel is described is with the question: What happens the day after The Prodigal returns? And we’re talking here about the world-famous “prodigal son” from Jesus’ parable about the selfish, wayward young man who flees from his family home and makes a complete mess of his life. Then, surprisingly, in the depths of his despair, the young man’s father welcomes him home. The prodigal’s brother resents this, because this faithful brother stayed at home and did all the hard work while the prodigal was out partying. Nevertheless, the father insists on welcoming him home with open arms.

GREG: That story had been foundational throughout Brennan’s writing and teaching and I think I said something, in one of our early exchanges, like this: The place where the prodigal story starts to get interesting for me is what happens on the second day. How do you come back from your mistakes? How do you begin to make things right? How do you begin to live in a different way? These are questions Brennan always wrote and taught about. They became the core of the novel.

WHO WOULD YOU CAST IN THE MOVIE VERSION?

DAVID: I don’t want to spoil the novel by revealing too many details in this interview, but in the opening pages of the novel we learn that the Rev. Jack Chisholm, the celebrated pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, has been caught in a terrible lapse of judgment. His drinking and his affair with a woman are caught by witnesses on social media and this firestorm engulfs him very rapidly. He has been estranged from his own father and he hasn’t returned to his little hometown in many years. But, as he’s becoming almost suicidal, his father shows up and welcomes him home. Tell us a little more about the plot, but we won’t spoil any of the surprises, OK?

GREG: Sure. What we can say is that Jack falls from grace in a very big way, as you’ve just described. He’s not a serial cheater, but he does have an affair. When it all becomes public, he loses his family, he loses his church, he loses his book contract. He tries to drink himself to death in Mexico. Then, his father invites him to come home. It’s the prodigal story with some changes. The brother, who stayed at home in the original story, is now a sister in this novel, for example.

DAVID: Within Jack’s fall and his gradual climb toward reconciliation is also a dramatic change in Jack’s understanding of the Christian faith, right?

GREG: Jack is famous as a preacher for this kind of neo-Calvinist theology that says God is not very fond of you, and that you don’t deserve to have God be fond of you. It’s a damaging theology. His catchphrase is, “We have got to do better.” He’s basically teaching that we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor.

I didn’t model him after any specific megachurch pastor, but I can tell you that there are a lot of people out there who are like Jack in some ways.

DAVID: Readers won’t have any trouble recognizing Jack as a realistic figure among today’s religious elite, a kind of composite of a number of big names.

So we don’t spoil the plot developments in the book, let’s describe this story by actually casting this book as a movie, OK? When I finished this novel, I thought right away: Oh, someone is going to make a movie of this! So, let’s say Hollywood rolls out a big budget and a producer could have his pick of actors.

Who would play Jack Chisholm, the central character?

GREG: It needs to be a person who can project both self-confidence and brokenness. I’ve really liked Bradley Cooper’s work recently. At his core, Jack is an absolutely broken person and his own theology has grown out of his own self loathing. Bradley Cooper has shown us in movies like Silver Linings Playbook that he can portray someone who we care about, yet who can wind up doing some terrible things, and who still can have the potential for change.

DAVID: So, Bradley Cooper stars as Jack Chisholm in your ideal movie version. Then, who plays Jack’s father.

GREG: Robert Duvall. Now, I know that he’s a kind of predictable “go to” choice for that kind of role. But we need a strong actor for the father who, for years, has been this kind of forbidding, scary character. Yet, this father is coming to the end of his life and he’s trying to find a better way to live, as well.

DAVID: Jack’s older sister? Who plays the stay-at-home sibling who was so dutiful that she resents Jack’s return? I’m thinking Holly Hunter.

GREG: Well, that could work, although the sister is in her 30s, or maybe as old as her 40s, and Holly Hunter is now in her 50s. You’ve got the idea, though: a Holly Hunter kind of actress.

DAVID: And the small town preacher in your book—who plays him? He’s really the Brennan Manning voice in the novel.

GREG: Hmmm, Father Frank. Who could play Father Frank? He’s a character in his ‘60s. I was thinking of someone like Jeff Bridges, especially the kind of Jeff Bridges role in that movie about the aging country singer, Crazy Heart. In the novel, Father Frank is someone who, like Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning, can turn his own brokenness into the core of his ministry.

DAVID: Yes, I like that idea of Bridges in that role! I’m beginning to “see” this story in a new light now that we’ve cast the stars in the movie. Maybe it will help readers to glimpse the really compelling nature of this story—without spoiling details.

I want to ask one last question that I’m sure readers will ponder: Did Brennan Manning live long enough to read the final novel?

GREG: I finished my work, as his collaborator, in March. And, because we worked as pen pals, I wasn’t there beside him in those final weeks and I’m not sure if he read the entire novel. He certainly went back and forth with me on the versions up until the end.

DAVID: Well, I’m glad to see it’s being received in such a warm way by his many fans.

GREG: I did hear from HarperCollins that booksellers blew through the first printing of The Prodigal and they’ve already had to run a second printing.

There are a lot of people who loved Brennan and this book does have the special appeal of being his first novel—and his last book—all in one. I’m hearing, already, from clergy who are asking their entire congregations to read this in preparation for talking about this as a congregation.

I feel very good, today, that Brennan and I were able to finish this project before he died.

CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?

READ GREG GARRETT’S ONGOING COLUMNS Greg writes regularly within the Patheos website. The link here takes you to Greg’s index page for recent columns.

VISIT GREG ON FACEBOOK He’s already got nearly 2,000 friends, but there’s room for you, too, especially if you’re involved in ongoing discussion of Greg’s books and you want to follow his new releases.

THE OTHER JESUS If you like Greg’s approach to faith in today’s interview and in The Prodigal novel, you’ll definitely want this 2011 book. The link takes you to our 2011 interview with Greg about moving from a religion of fear to a faith in the love of God.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO U2 Early in his career, Greg Garrett was a rock journalist for a time and this book on the band U2 provides a great doorway for congregations to discuss the significance of U2’s music and activism.

‘HOLY SUPERHEROES!‘ We’re linking, here, to Greg’s most recent piece for ReadTheSpirit on comic books. A life-long fan of comics, Greg literally wrote The Book on the religious themes in comics. This 2011 piece reflects on some recent super-hero movies and also describes Greg’s book, as well.

‘IS HARRY POTTER “CHRISTIAN”? That was the provocative question we put to Greg in 2010, when a new Harry Potter blockbuster was opening. Once again, Greg wrote The Book on how congregations can spark inspiring discussions about the J.K. Rowling novels and movies.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Fran McKendree: How we are called to Awakening Soul

Fran McKendree photo used with Awakening SoulBy FRAN McKENDREE

“God, put me in the midst of what you are doing, run me over with your presence, and allow me to bless what you are doing.”

This prayer is one of the touchstones of my morning meditation, as I begin my waking time each day. Humbling, grounding and enlightening, a reminder that I have work to do, that I do not do this alone, that this work, when I get my “small self” out of the way and stay true, can lead to what Michael Meade calls “threads of meaning—hints of purpose.”

Each morning this is a threshold crossing—moving out into the world, carrying in my heart the desire to live into the fulfillment of my calling. Over time, I have come to learn that deep in my heart is a yearning to create space where, with others, we might be fully present to the wonder, mystery and unfolding of our journeys.

Music—singing, making music or connecting with the music that’s already there, as Victor Wooten would say—is one of the shorelines where my yearning finds a home. So, I am continually searching the horizon for opportunities to connect through soulful music. In 2011, with the wise counsel and support of my wife, Diana, and other trusted friends, I formed with my colleague Ann Holtz the partnership we’ve call “AwakeningSoul.”

Our hope and underlying purpose in this endeavor is to create and host gatherings that offer:

  • Sanctuary—respite, a safe harbor where we know our anchor will hold fast in the rising, ebbing tides;
  • Sustenance—a banquet of wisdom, truth-telling, mindfulness and new awareness;
  • Inspiration—knowing we are not alone on our journeys, emboldened, invigorated, grateful and encouraged as we head back into our worlds.

For our first gathering, “A New, Ancient Harmony,” in December of 2011, we invited as presenters my dear friend John Philip Newell and poet Judy Brown, someone new to my circle but whose work I greatly admired. I wanted very much to have an intergenerational music ensemble and was thrilled to include Lindsey Blount, Charles Milling and Duncan Wickel. Rounding out our group, in between these young adults and me came River Guerguerian, a world renowned percussionist and beautifully creative spirit.

Our “weaver”—skillfully and artistically shuttling the waft and warp of the community we were forming was my fellow sojourner Brian Prior, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Certified Spiritual Director Diana McKendree and Brian led workshops for us as well; Diana offering an exploration of dream work, Brian focusing on living into our gifts. Ann handled with deft skill all the details, “nuts and bolts,” and design challenges that came our way.

John Philip led us each morning in his gentle, soul-searching way toward a lasting connection with all that we hold deepest within our hearts. Judy brought her gift of word-shaping to help us all remember to hold space in the kindled fires of our lives where “the spirit, knowing just how it wants to burn, can find its way.”

Our participants gave us in return the raising of their beautiful voices in song, the gift of their lively, spirited and profound conversation, full of hope and excitement, and most graciously, their trust and gratitude. Our musical ensemble brought to life all that was dancing around in our hearts and guided us at other times on the pathway toward that rare and mysterious glade we call stillness.

RETURNING TO AWAKENING SOUL IN NOVEMBER 2013

This November we’ll host our second event, “Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.” We have invited Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright to be our presenters. Lauren is an author (Girl Meets God and Still), a professor at Duke School of Divinity and an Episcopal priest. Jerry is a Jungian analyst, pilgrimage leader and Presbyterian minister. We’ve asked them to join us, not because they have “the answers,” but because they speak with integrity, courage, wisdom, humor and vulnerability;

“The things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. Something has shifted; something has moved; you are looking for God and you are looking in ways that you hadn’t known to look before.”
Lauren Winner

“Each generation must embrace the image of the Divine which best expresses the experience of the Divine. A god image which is not continually dying [transforming] is not worthy of our worship, since god images which do not change become idols.”
Jerry Wright

Our music ensemble will return to lift us once again, and Brian, Diana, and our other gifted, tireless support team will be bringing all their energy. Our evenings this year will be devoted to exercises that will lead us into deep, meaningful conversation. Our intention is that we are preparing the shape—we know that this gathering will only emerge fully with the energy, creativity, soulfulness and generous spirit of those who join us…. a community of seekers.

Read the Spirit has been for me a wonderful café—bustling with incredibly passionate and articulate seekers, yet offering a quiet corner for savoring the moments of “ah ha-ness” that sparkle each day, like light dancing off a prism in a kitchen window on a sunny morning. The folks I have met through this online magazine, regulars and drop ins, have been inspirational. I hope and pray that our Awakening Soul gatherings shine from that same prism, and that our time together and the paths we travel will be enlivened and enriched by our shared love and desire to continue to seek those “threads of meaning and hints of purpose.”

READ MORE in our overview of the November 2013 Awakening Soul gathering, which includes links to learn about dates, location and registration.

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Categories: Peacemaking