[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0814648509″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/51TPXN3hyEL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”217″]The Process of Spiritual Awakening
A Feature Review of
Desperately Seeking Spirituality:
A Field Guide to Practice
Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
Early in Desperately Seeking Spirituality, Meredith Gould writes, “Annoying reminder: spiritual awakening is a process, not a one-time enlightenment event” (7). There is so much to this quote that captures the book’s essence.
First, “annoying reminder.” You will not find here the typical air of reverence, awe, inspiration, and peace that characterizes most books on prayer and spiritual practice. As Gould notes from time to time and as the title indicates, spirituality is not a simple thing to nurture and pursue and it can and does feature moments of confusion, frustration, and irritation. She is very up front about the difficulty, patience, and trial and error involved in such an endeavor, both empathizing with any stumblings the reader might experience and providing reassurance that both having and naming them is permissible.
Second, “spiritual awakening is a process, not a one-time enlightenment event.” As Gould has named this truth an annoying reminder, she presents spiritual exploration as a lifelong process with both mystical highs and lows, which do not last in perpetuity but do linger as times of growth that inform the moments to come.
In the same chapter from which this quote is pulled, Gould presents the spiritual journey as a fourfold cycle. First comes the initial wake-up call, which upsets one’s sense of life and moves them into a time of questioning. Next comes a time of internal struggle which John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul and which goes by other names depending on which mystic you’re most fond of reading. The third phase is when darkness turns to excitement as the seeker (she uses this word quite often) begins living into new possibilities via retreats, practices, and the reframing of relationships, among other ways he or she begins sensing God’s presence in ways not explored before. The final phase is acting upon the knowledge discovered in the third phase…until such time as the cycle begins anew. Here is where she offers that annoying reminder: the first phase will eventually re-present itself, and the seeker will be faced with the entire process all over again.
Gould has organized her book into three sections, this being part of the first, which introduces basic concepts related to spirituality. After noting the steps in the exploration process, she follows up with three chapters on practice: prayer exercises, the paradox of belief, and structuring practices into one’s time.
Gould only really provides a brief summary in these subsequent chapters, noting various possibilities for each while often countering her own points with reasons why it’s so hard to keep them. Such reasons range from genuinely helpful (one inset explains learning styles as a key to determining which practices might be most suitable) to further snarky “annoying reminders.
The second section of the book is a series of chapters on what Gould calls “practices of being:” willingness, curiosity, empathy, generosity, and delight. Rather than a series of nuts-and-bolts explanations of prayer exercises such as lectio divina or examen (which are briefly explained in the first section), Gould instead explores mindfulness practices as ways to approach all of life. In each of these treatments, she acknowledges what gets in the way of successful observance (the snark is ratcheted down as the book goes on).
In generosity, for instance, Gould notes that we all basically know how to be generous: we learned it in Sunday School or by seeing examples on the news. What’s much more difficult, she says, is what keeps us from being generous: “the usual human weirdness: dodgy motives, unmet emotional needs, way to permeable personal boundaries, fear of either not having enough or giving too much away at one’s own expense” (61). Gould aptly names the struggle to practice each of these while offering small ways to address it.
The final section focuses on self-care and realizing when a spiritual practice could use a tune-up or outright hiatus. Throughout this book, Gould provides many keen observations about what happens when a practice becomes a burden rather than a joy; soul-draining rather than soul-building. After dropping so many hints in the previous two sections, she goes full bore in naming what happens and how to correct course when things go off the rails.
In this section, Gould lists the signs and stages of burnout and provides an inset describing the difference between self-preservation and self-sabotage. A chapter on solitude notes the differences between being alone in order to recharge and rejoin the world later, and isolating oneself from others. The final chapter on rest asks whether one takes on leisure activities to relax or to burn off energy, and provides a short description of biorhythms to help name the difference for oneself.
I found Desperately Seeking Spirituality to be a helpful introduction to spirituality that is honest about the frustration or hesitation the reader may feel. Gould seeks to strike a balance between information, acknowledgement of potential pitfalls, and humor, although the latter can occasionally be a little thick. With each chapter providing a few reflection questions, this would be a prime choice for an individual or group looking to wade into the waters of spiritual practice.
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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