Looking for spiritual guides in challenging times? Try these books

By Kathleen Finley | Catholic News Service | April 4, 2022

These are the book covers for “The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness” by Gregory Boyle; and “The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life” by Joan Chittister. The books are reviewed by Kathleen Finley. (CNS photo/courtesy Avid Reader Press and Convergent Books)

“The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness” by Gregory Boyle. Avid Reader Press (New York, 2021). 256 pp., $27.

“The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life” by Joan Chittister. Convergent Books (New York, 2021). 264 pp., $26.

In challenging times — or any time — it helps to have a spiritual guide to remind us of what we may already know. Both Jesuit Father Greg Boyle and Sister Joan Chittister certainly qualify as help for us as we try to understand how to live these days.

Father Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation and reentry program in the world, takes readers by the hand to a place we might never go otherwise.

In the third of his “Power” books — the first two were “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” and “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship” — he takes on the importance of God’s tenderness and grace and how we are called to live that same attitude.

He says the pandemic has made our inequalities clearer than ever: “It’s true enough that we were all caught in the same coronavirus storm, but we soon saw that some were weathering it in ocean liners and some in inner tubes. Some, even, clinging barely to a piece of driftwood. We are in different-size vessels, facing the same storm.”

To manage in the midst of all this, Father Boyle invites us to really listen to the good news: “God is only interested in lavishing us with extravagant tenderness, and yet we are convinced that God is thinking we all could just do a better job.”

As he works with former gang members, homeboys — homies — his goal is to help them to begin to imagine this. “We don’t save homies, we see them. We don’t measure people, we meet them. ‘See me for the first time,’ a homie told me, ‘And I won’t forget how I look.'”

As he works with people who often have criminal records, he was once asked why he never mentions forgiveness in his books. He agreed that was true and observed, “I think we settle for just forgiveness, when we’re being offered mercy. I think mercy is more spacious. Let’s embrace mercy.”

The challenge, he says, is inclusion. “Jesus lived, breathed and embodied a boundary-subverting inclusion. If it’s inclusive and wildly so, then you know you’re warm. You are close to it. Nothing is excluded except excluding. The church speaks the whole language when it includes.”

His invitation to tenderness is powerful and illustrated with stories that are themselves tender, like those of a parent. “We are endlessly being created in love. So, we intensify our life in God and seek to create a contagion of tenderness. … A homie confides in me in my office: ‘Before I came here, I was a nobody. Now I’m somebody.’ He surprises himself with his own tears. ‘And I don’t want to be a nobody ever again.’ Love is the answer and tenderness is the way. Water is the love and the homie, a dry sponge. But tenderness is the contact. Water hitting sponge.”

In his work, Father Boyle invites those he works with to be this tenderness for each other. “This is how we are reminded that we are children of a vulnerable God. In the ‘sangha,’ the community of kinship, I see everyone in me and me in everyone. … At Homeboy, we want the place itself to be the teacher.” He invites us as readers to continue this community of kinship.

Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine author of many books, explores 50 practices that are linked to her monastic life. She explains why these are helpful now:

“The challenge is to determine what is being asked of the human spirit when the pressures of the time seem insoluble and our inherent energy begins to fray. What internal resources can we rely on then if we are ever to become the fullness of ourselves again. … It’s time to discover what it takes to nourish the vein of tenacity that change requires as it reshapes the systems around us and to face having to cultivate a future we did not seek or imagine.”

She offers readers the next best thing to being in a monastery for a while and suggests that what readers may need is a “refueling stop.” “What they may be looking for is simply the wholeness of their spiritual selves that dwells within them already, often overlooked until the well runs dry.”

Sister Chittister gives us a broad range of resources to consider, from bells to communal prayer to contemplation. About bells she comments, “It’s what you pay attention to in life that determines both your commitments and your inner happiness. Time is its indicator. One of the most important questions of life is surely, Where do I spend my time and what am I doing there? The second is, What calls me back to where I’m meant to be? Money? Work? The crowd? Something else?”

In talking about beauty, she explains, “Without the arts — architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performance and film — the soul dries up, the world goes dark. Then plastics and faux leather and pressed wood and the whole gamut of bogus, fabricated or counterfeit attempts to persuade you that the unreal is real turn the world upside down.”

“Spirituality,” she reminds us, “is the conscious turning of the mind and the spirit to God that softens the edges of the heart, that increases your understanding and enlightens your heart before you manage to make the small things in life bigger than they ought to be.”

At the end of each of the 50 sections, she reminds the reader of one key idea in bold lettering. A couple favorites: “We come to community to find the core of life and share it with others. Community is the commitment to carry others through their periods of darkness as they carry us through ours. It is about sustaining others and being sustained ourselves when we have gone as far as we can go alone.”

And “contemplation is not the practice of saying prayers. It is the growing, overwhelming consciousness of God within us and around us, before us and beyond us. It is God embedded in our souls and at the helms of our hearts.”

When it comes to spiritual guides in these uncertain times, you can’t do better than Father Greg Boyle and Sister Joan Chittister.

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Also of interest: “The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life” by Thomas Vozzo. Loyola Press (Chicago, 2022). 192 pp., $26.99.

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Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “Holy Together: Reflections on Married Spirituality” and “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace,” and she previously taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.

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