Brief Reviews, VOLUME 1

Brief Review: MODERN SPIRITUAL MASTERS [Vol. 1, #32]

A Brief Review of Modern Spiritual Masters
Edited by Robert Ellsberg

by Chris Smith

Modern Spiritual Masters is an excellent collection of portraits of those faith leaders of the twentieth century whose lives embodied both compassionate action and careful reflection. Such a balance is a rare gift, and stories of this kind of faithfulness deserve to be collected and passed on in a volume such as this one. Each person represented here is described in a brief biography and then his/her story is fleshed out through representative excerpts from his/her writings. Modern Spiritual Masters would be an excellent volume to use with high school or college students in teaching the recent history of our ancestors in the way of Christ. There is great diversity represented in this collection: a balance of males and females and a broad array of ethnicities and locales are represented. There are also many familiar figures represented (Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen), as well as some that might not be so well-known (Thea Bowman, Mother Maria Skobtsova). Although I realize that the audience of Orbis Books is largely Catholic, it would have been good to see figures here from a broader range of church traditions – perhaps including people like Eberhard Arnold (Anabaptist) or Clarence Jordan (Evangelical).

To some readers this point might be negligible, but I was a little uncomfortable with the use of the term “masters” to describe these faithful ones. As I read, I wondered: how comfortable would those represented be with the use of such language? Does the use of such an exalted title assist or hinder the communication of the radical way of Christ to which we are all called? (One is reminded in this regard, of Dorothy Day’s quip “Don’t make a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily”) However, regardless of the title’s language, this book is a beneficial collection for the followers of Christ, and its stories can and should be read in a way that encourages us to enter more deeply into the way of Christ that is both contemplative and compassionate.

Robert Ellsberg, ed.
Modern Spiritual Masters.
Paperback. Orbis Books. 2008.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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One Comment

  1. Hi–thanks for the nice review. I agree that the Catholic focus is unfortunate, but this book, as I note in the introduction, was commissioned by a Catholic reading program, “JustFaith,” and they had a strong influence on the selection. For your information, the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series is much broader: both Clarence Jordan and Eberhard Arnold are included, along with many others outside the Catholic fold (Bonhoeffer, Rufus Jones, Evelyn Underhill, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Schweitzer, Brother Roger of Taize, Dorothee Soelle, Tolstoy, and others). As for “Master,” I hope I addressed that point in my introduction, but your concern is well taken.