This Lenten season, I’m taking a moment in this mid-week slot to recommend resources for spiritual growth. Previous suggestions have included a news periodical with a Christian worldview, and a collection of prayers written hundreds of years ago.
Today I turn to my favorite medium, books–real, hold-in-your-hand books. I have three from my personal library in front of me; each offers a somewhat different approach to spiritual formation.
The most recent addition is by an author I have enjoyed in the past, John Ortberg. His 2010 book, The Me I Want To Be, is written with his signature blend of pithy anecdote, biblical insight and practical teaching points, complete with helpful call-out frames (or whole pages) which provide overview or outline of his main points. Its design is eye-catching and its format makes it very readable.
Here’s an excerpt from one sidebar titled “What is Spiritual Formation?”:
Spiritual formation is the process by which your inner self and character are shaped.
People sometimes speak as if spiritual formation is an optional activity that some religious people may pursue and others bypass. They think it is reserved for monks, mystics and missionaries. But that’s not true.
Everyone has a spirit. Everyone’s inner life is being formed–for better or worse. (from chapter 2, page 29)
[One disclaimer: This book recommends use of an online spiritual growth tool called Monvee, which is, alas, defunct.]
A book which immediately came to mind when I thought about spiritual formation is Sacred Listening by James L. Wakefield. Still in print, this book is an adaptation of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola (for more information and alternative applications of the exercises, see here). This book explains the historic background of the exercises, which he has presented in a slightly modified form “to avoid unnecessarily alienating Protestants.”
Reading and meditating on scripture, praying, and keeping a journal, are all facets of the exercises. The first “movement” calls for 60 to 90 minutes per day for a period of eight weeks. To complete all the exercises requires at least 30 weeks. The most ideal practice begins in the fall and completes the entire four movements of the Exercises on Easter Sunday.
Although this book can be used completely on one’s own, use with a prayer partner, small group or spiritual director is strongly encouraged. I can attest to this book’s efficacy as a guide: accessible, thorough and practicable.
Finally, I want to recommend a book which fills a middle ground between The Me I Want to Be–a fairly light read–and the deep, long-term commitment of Sacred Listening. Disciplines for the Inner Life, compiled and edited by Bob Benson, Sr. and Michael W. Benson, is a terrific resource for daily spiritual growth, which includes a significant compendium of marvelous passages written by a wide range of Christian writers across the centuries.
The book is divided into 52 chapters, grouped into five large sections:
- Disciplines for the Inner Journey
- Obstacles to the Inner Life
- Patterns for Living Inwardly
- Inward Graces of the Centered Life
- Outward Fruits of the Inner Life
Each chapter opens with an Invocation and a Psalm (to be used daily for the entire week), a scripture passage to look up and read (one for each day of that week), a written prayer for the week based on the topic for the week, and–my favorite feature–five to seven pages of brief passages from Christian writings which help one to focus on the topic at hand. One is encouraged to read slowly, perhaps reading only one or two selections in a given day.
This book is, sadly, out of print. However, it is available online in paperback at a modest price. This is a book which can be begun at any time of year, at any point in the book. It contains such a wealth of material that it bears repeated usage…in fact, I’ve just talked myself into starting it again, later this year!
I want to conclude with another passage from Ortberg’s book. This is at the end of the very first chapter, and it’s what convinced me that I need to read this right now:
” I asked a wise man, “How do you assess the well-being of your soul?”
He immediately said, “I ask myself two questions:
- Am I growing more easily discouraged these days?
- Am I growing more easily irritated these days?”
At the core of a flourishing soul are the love of God and the peace of God. If peace is growing in me, I am less easily discouraged. If love is growing, I am less easily irritated. It was a brilliantly helpful diagnostic to assess the health of my soul.
How would you answer those two questions?”
Happy reading, friends! God bless you as you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”