In our conspicuously consumer-oriented culture, we can sometimes lose sight of the deeper roots of the holiday season. The minute October ticks over into November, a dizzying array of tantalizing items are dangled before us, reminding us of a December 25th deadline. Here, we offer an antidote: a calming tonic in the form of four new books that reflect segments of America’s rich diversity of spiritual traditions.
A YEAR OF PRAYER
Germaine Copeland is passionate about prayer. The author of Prayers That Avail Much, this dedicated counselor and prayer advocate has crafted a day-by-day devotional, 365 Days to a Prayer-Filled Life, that aims to move the human perception of prayer as an act of asking-waiting-receiving into a more powerful vision: a deeper and more intimate relationship with God. Beginning with a herald to the New Year, Day 1 invites us to begin anew and let go of the past through a small conversational essay, followed by a thoughtful prayer—a direct conversation with God—along with related Scripture references and a suggested Bible reading. Each day of the year presents a different topic—on a Tuesday, it could be a snippet about marriage, and Friday might prompt you to think about what really constitutes an abundant life. Gentle and steadfast, Copeland’s kind presence and true devotion to a merciful Divine Father shine from each page of this guiding “prayer book.”
THE BASICS OF JUDAISM
Tradition! Yes, that familiar refrain from Fiddler on the Roof kept running through my head as I hummed “If I Were a Rich Man” and chuckled (very hard to do simultaneously) while reading The Big Jewish Book for Jews: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Really Jewish Jew by humorists Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman. The authors of Yiddish with Dick and Jane are back with everything everyone—Jews and non-Jews alike—needs to know about how to be “really Jewish.” All of their wisecracking humor aside, Weiner and Davilman have a clear concern: that Judaism is becoming endangered within today’s modern American culture. “There is not one facet of American life in which Jews have not made significant contributions. . . . But this very success threatens to bring about the undoing of American Jewishness itself.” Their solution is to reassert the sense of what “it really means to be Jewish” by “preserving practices and beliefs . . . lest they atrophy . . . or become entirely forgotten.” Fifty-three “lessons” (what, you wanted more?) instruct us on the essentials: how to make chopped liver, how to use the Bible to tell if your wife is cheating on you, how to make pickles, how to worry and how to give back-handed compliments. There’s a lot of information here (plus enlivening illustrations), maybe even a surfeit, but not enough to make you meshugeneh.
Writer Judith Dupré (author of Skyscrapers, Bridges, Churches and Monuments), who has a longstanding interest in the beauty of and deeper meanings inherent in architecture, has carefully built a luminous book: Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life. If compared to an edifice, this would be a simple, intimate yet soaring light-filled space—an apt dwelling for a woman whom many call the Queen of Heaven.
The wonder and mystery of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has long captivated our culture and collective imagination. To this day, hordes of pilgrims converge upon holy sites, places where Mary is said to have appeared, to receive her gentle but powerful wisdom, healing and grace. Dupré explores these locales and the overall fascination with the young girl from Nazareth in 59 exquisite essays (the number of beads on a rosary) that are by turns personal, historical and meditative while they focus on the epochs and experiences of Mary’s life, from her immaculate conception through to her death. Along with Dupré’s keen insight into her own faith and thorough research, the text is enhanced with meticulously chosen artwork, both classical and contemporary, and “marginalia,” consisting of poems, prayers and historical notes.
Dupré takes us along on a journey of faith toward understanding Mary’s universal embodiment and allure, and how this tender, tragic and brave woman’s life still resonates powerfully with women and men the world over. Says Dupré of this power: “Mary’s experiences as a mother, her intense joy as well as her unfathomable grief, shed light on the unavoidable fate of all parents—to love but lack the ability to ever fully understand, or protect, their children.”
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of Tibet who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, often comments that he is “no one special.” He says this to emphasize our common humanity and the “vital need for affection” that exists within us all. This simple statement, which gives a fathoms-deep glimpse into the heart and mind of the Dalai Lama, leads off a new memoir (collected by his translator and friend Sofia Stril-Rever), My Spiritual Journey.
Organized into three parts, the book follows the Dalai Lama’s life experiences “as a human being,” “as a Buddhist monk” and “as the Dalai Lama.” A compilation of his memories, personal reflections, dharma lectures and public presentations, the book is a series of short essays, which are accompanied by commentary from Stril-Rever. Here are peeks inside the Dalai Lama’s experiences as a child, exploring the vast spread of rooms and spaces in the Potala Palace, along with remembrances of persecution and his flight into exile. He gives a loving portrait of his mother (“a compassionate woman”) and declares his vow to, with his last breath, “practice compassion.” The book is a treasure trove for both those who are well-versed in the Dalai Lama’s teachings and those new to this “simple Buddhist monk.” His reminiscences and perceptions about humanity’s need to collectively care for one another and the Earth shine with humor, honesty and kindness—all the while exhorting us gently to “never lose hope!”