A Review of
Threshold of Discovery:
A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife
L. Roger Owens
Reviewed by Joshua Hale
L, Roger Owens only drove three miles from his house to a local Audubon nature reserve to walk off too many slices of Thanksgiving pie. But it was a gnawing hunger that preoccupied his walking, an already-brewing spiritual crisis now catalyzed by his imminent 40th birthday, until an unbidden thought burst in: “I will take forty walks here in the year after I turn forty to mark this threshold-crossing into midlife” (viii). Beginning on New Year’s Day, he did precisely that.
Threshold of Discovery recounts that year of walks, moving through seasons and along seams recognizable to someone who is closing out their thirties, or moving beyond their forties. Each walk’s chronicle runs only a few pages in length, but don’t equate brevity with insubstantial, flaky piety. Each walk’s reflection is self-contained, though they’re gathered into thirteen “Trails,” and other connecting threads emerge as the reader progresses; while some themes rapidly come into focus, others themes only begin to resolve over time. Early on, choosing a Trail or Walk at random becomes not merely possible but delightfully preferable to reading whatever’s next, broadening the book’s appeal. It could as easily be Sunday morning curriculum as launch-pad to an intimate discussion among friends; there’s enough theological wisdom to serve as a serious introduction to spiritual guidance, yet so readable a novice could use for devotions for Lent.
That warm, clear voice—which refreshingly never slips into dispassion—stems from Owens’ vocation as professor and pastor: a veteran United Methodist clergyperson, he now teaches Christian Spirituality and Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He willingly shares more than mere glimpses of his interior life in vignettes responding to the changing mood of his children, recovering from surgery, or confessing ambition and resentment. This self-revelation in sturdy, grounded prose quietly forged a kinship with my own grief, doubt, vocational turmoil, and litanies of disappointment. And occasionally dry wit broke into outright hilarity, as when Owens is reminded of the rabbinic saying that unseen angels herald every person with “Here comes the divine image!” by an older man huffing and puffing along the path while stretching out a worn green shirt emblazoned with an alligator, prompting his own revelation—“Papa Gator: chaperoned by angels” (117).
It’s comfortingly familiar to find not only the Talmud on Owens’ bookshelf, but also poetry by Denise Levertov and literature by Madeline L’Engle alongside Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, all companions and guides tellingly treasured and purposeful. They’re cited in endnotes, which preserves the conversational flow, informally presented though still sourced fully. Given Owens’ research into Thomas Kelly, it’s not surprising they are companions most frequently and that their dialogue yields the most telling insights. Even when engaging the less-accessible Spiritual Exercises—I also find them “too scientific, too precise, as though they’ve got God figured out”—he coaxes “a deep helpfulness, a sense-making” out of Ignatius, in this instance by turning to the “gentle, life-giving quality” present in his own seasoned spiritual director (57).
Owens’ rediscovery of a youthful passion for birdwatching illuminates beautifully (even to someone as unfamiliar with birding as I am) one of his core spiritual practices, especially in midlife: paying attention, noticing and relishing in details which seem common yet have their own lively uniqueness. That attention to habits and environment also shapes critical responses to contemporary solutions for midlife crisis: Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s proposal to reinvigorate a lackluster marriage by travel and adventure is set beside the desert monastics’ wariness of acedia, the deadly sin that makes us slothful or even busy-for-the-sake-of-busyness and therefore neglectful of the lasting benefits of covenant and community. Granting that variations of routine may satisfy our neurological appetite for novelty, Owens wonders: “What little shifts, what ‘work,’ can I do here and now, within the routine structures of this life that grace has given me, to help me reinvigorate the routine, to see and love the present anew?” (128).
My own dramatic (albeit temporary) uprooting to walk the Camino de Santiago is still fresh, less than a year old—a possibility Owens considered in his crisis but rejected in favor of a repeatedly-local pilgrimage—so just the warning against a serial spiritual adventuring was welcome. But he continued to dig, insistently probing around my roots: to weed out harmful impulses, yes, but more to make possible the growth of something good from now on. I needed to grasp my own deeper longing “to see and love the present anew,” and how to sustain a lifelong pilgrimage now that I am home again, because cultivating desires rightfully in midlife is demanding, mysterious work.
Such mundane labor and insights will make the most sense to readers wandering the Terra media vita; travelers who are not there may well find it less than useful, becoming bored or even baffled at the insight gleaned by any given struggle. Likewise, readers less familiar or sympathetic to Owens’ particularly Christian spirituality will find the occasional dialogue with Thich Nhat Hanh insufficiently engaging. So don’t apply some generic “spiritual classic” label to Threshold of Discovery’s cover; it is both more focused and less systematic, which makes it worthwhile on its own terms. Roger Owens aptly evokes his beloved “field guides” in mapping out midlife: it’s wild and wondrous territory, but not at all Godforsaken.
Joshua Hale is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Liberty, Texas, an inveterate reader, and a periodic pilgrim [saunterer, backpacker, outdoor-nature-spiritual-walker]. Josh’s wife Christie is also an ordained UMC elder, and they have four brilliant and delightfully odd children together. If his Twitter @expatminister was yet another child, it would be starting middle school in August; his Facebook author page, however, is a newborn…and he’s almost as terrified to bring it into the world as with any of his human offspring, so help stave off the imposter syndrome by liking Josh Hale: ExpatFaith. And bring coffee.