Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: PILGRIMAGE OF A SOUL by Phileena Heuertz [Vol. 3, #29]

“Journey Into Wholeness”

A Review of
Pilgrimage of a Soul:
Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life

By Phileena Heuertz

Reviewed by Margaret D. McGee.

[ Read an excerpt of this book here… ]

Pilgrimage of a Soul:
Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life
Phileena Heuertz.
Paperback: InterVarsity Press, 2010
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

Pilgrimage of a Soul - Phileena HeuertzChange that ushers in a new way of life begins deep inside. Conceived when personal longings we’ve hardly noticed are touched by a boundless longing too great to be contained, the new way of life needs a period of gestation to grow and knit its parts together. Unfortunately, the old life with its long-established habits looks askance at this unasked-for pregnancy, tries to block the labor, and kicks the cradle every chance it gets. That’s one reason people go on pilgrimage or take a sabbatical far from home: to give incipient change a chance to take root and grow new habits that will bear fruit on the return to “normal life.”

In Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, Phileena Heuertz reports back on just such a journey. The daughter of a Bible-centered pastor, Heuertz describes growing up in a community where the roles of women in relationships, church, and professional life are viewed as subordinate to the roles of men. By the age of seventeen she knew she wanted to be a missionary. Her vocation found focus at college, where she met her future husband, Chris Heuertz. Inspired by his missionary experience, particularly his time serving with Mother Theresa  at the Home for the Dying in Kolkata (Calcutta), Phileena joined Chris on the core leadership team of Word Made Flesh, “an international community serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor” (www.wordmadeflesh.org). In time she also entered into a practice of contemplative prayer and regular retreats which deepened her spiritual life while awakening her “true self”—a self that longed for mutuality rather than subordination in relationship.

In 2007, when the Heuertzes were granted a sabbatical from their work, the time away from Word Made Flesh coincided with Phileena’s growing unease about the way gender affected her roles as wife, daughter, and professional colleague. Their sabbatical began in pilgrimage, with Chris and Phileena walking together El Camino de Santiago in Spain, one of the most revered of the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes. After completing the month-long trek, they spent the remainder of the sabbatical at The Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, in a Sabbath time of rest and contemplation.

It was in the synergy between those two journeys, one outward and physical, the other inward and prayerful, that the changes taking place in Phileena’s soul moved toward incarnation. The labor and passage were not easy, but as she writes in the book’s Introduction, faithful contemplative practice served as midwife throughout the process. “This is a story of following God, losing sight of God, seeking after and ultimately being renewed by God. This is a story of prayer as a centering, tethering event—an infusion of contemplation into a lifestyle of activism….It is a story of how God awakens a soul to new life.” (17-18)

The book’s organization serves to explicate the nature of spiritual transformation itself, rather than to follow the chronology of Heuertz’s own story. The Introduction and a Conclusion enclose seven chapters, each exploring one stage or movement in anyone’s journey of transformation: Awakening, Longing, Darkness, Death, Transformation, Intimacy, and Union. Heuertz makes the point that these movements do not come to us in sequence, but in interlocking rings or seasons of the soul. “During a process of formation, the soul moves through these rings at various times, in no particular order. The spiritual journey is more cyclical than linear.” (22) Accordingly, experiences from Heuertz’s sabbatical—whether from the trek along El Camino de Santiago or the retreat house in Durham—are plucked out of sequence and placed in the text where they best serve the topic at hand.

Given the book’s purpose and theme, this organization makes some sense. However, readers may feel disjointed in time and space, especially in the early chapters, which are not as well-written as the rest of the book. Suffering from too much theory, too many generalizations instead of anecdotal specifics, and an occasional awkward sentence that should not have survived the editor’s blue pencil, the first half of Pilgrimage of a Soul does not do justice to the passion of Heuertzes’ journey into wholeness. If I hadn’t committed to reviewing this book, I might not have finished it, which would have been a shame, because somewhere between Darkness and Death she hits her stride. Before the end I found myself caught up in Heuertz’s struggles with self-definition, empathizing with her stumbling steps into freedom, cheering for her marriage, and unwilling to put the book down.

This was nowhere more true than in the chapter on Death, when in adjoining passages she shares her decision not to have children and her conversion to Catholicism. Now there’s a paradoxical combination! Heuertz handles the gender politics and seeming inconsistencies of an authentic spiritual life with grace and wit. “My decision to not conceive children is an expression of how the grace of God moved me from being defined by relationships to having relationships. A woman who chooses to have children can also achieve the same ends. Both decisions can be the truest expression of who we are.” (113) And a few pages later—“Who knew that a feminine awakening could include being confirmed into another patriarchal tradition? My decision to join the Catholic Church can only be understood within the paradox of God—a God who often dumbfounds us by choosing ‘the other.’”(119)

In the end, I was rooting for Phileena while finding inspiration to stretch old and new muscles on my own stumbling path. As Heuertz puts it, “We owe it to the world to submit to a spiritual journey that makes us receptive to the dismantling of our illusions and self-deceit. We can either be our worst enemy or our dearest friend. For the love of God, let us choose the latter.” (187)


Margaret D. McGee, author of Haiku – The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines (SkyLight Paths), shares new liturgy and her further adventures on the spiritual path on her web site, InTheCourtyard.com.

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: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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