Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

From Templegate Publishers:

‘Robert Lax, (1915-2000), was a poet, hermit, sage, and peacemaker. Thomas Merton said of Lax, “He had a natural, instinctive spirituality, an inborn direction to the living God.” Jack Kerouac called him “a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.”

W3 Lax R

A native of New York, Lax graduated from Columbia University in 1938 with a degree in English Literature. After much wandering he traveled to Greece where he made Patmos, Isle of the Revelation, his spiritual and creative workshop. There he quietly resided for over three decades, writing the “ascetic” and experimental verse that would rank him “Among America’s greatest poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words” (New York Times Book Review).

In the Beginning Was Love is a unique introduction to Lax as contemplative. These spiritual selections, mostly gathered from his poems and journals, portray Lax as a mystic filled with a deep love for both Creator and creation’.

This new book is edited by a friend – S. T. Georgiou, Ph.D.  He is the author of some very significant publications: The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit-Lessons with Robert Lax, (Templegate), Mystic Street, and The Isle of Monte Cristo. He teaches religion and spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can order the book on Templegate Publishers website: www.templegate.com, and it should soon be available via Amazon.com.

I’m looking forward to reading it!

behind the facade

The Delphic maxim “know thyself” is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has been used by a diverse array of thinkers Socrates, Plato and Aeschylus, among others, to prompt awareness of the self.

 In the Christian tradition the necessity of ‘knowing thyself’ has a strong pedigree.  Calvin, for example, argued in his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ (particularly in 1.1.1) that one cannot truly know and understand God until one is sufficiently self-aware.  St. Augustine is famous for his autobiography ‘Confessions’, a powerful exposition of his spiritual and psychological struggles.

In the world of psychotherapy, it was Carl Jung who famously wrote: “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud drew an important distinction between self-analysis, which he promoted, and introspection, we he viewed as defective.

However we view ourselves and our place in the world, we can all agree that we are intrinsically complicated creatures.  Our inner worlds are often suppressed and hidden behind a facade; we project onto the world what we think the world wants us to see.  The great psychiatrists and psychologists – Freud, Jung, Adler, Frankl – all understood this and incorporated it into their work.

There is one book that I came across recently – ‘Behind the Facade: A Psychiatrist’s View’ – that highlighted the complexity of the human condition wonderfully.  Written by the late Dr. Dennis Friedman, who famously blamed the 2008 banking crisis on banker’s mothers, ‘Behind the Facade’ is a fascinating insight into the subconscious and the secrets it holds.  Friedman does this via a series of stories, or case-studies, based on the myriad patients he has helped throughout his long career.  He lays bare the dynamics and drivers that lead to relationship issues, sexual dysfunction and work problems, particularly stemming from parenting issues and childhood traumas.

Friedman tells each story masterfully, never telling the reader what to think, rather leaving him/her to make their own conclusion.  Some stories, at least in my case, needed to be read more than once to get the full import of the psychological nuances that were presented.

If you are fascinated by people in general and the psyche in particular, this book comes highly recommended.  Friedman’s psychoanalytic approach, presented in this way is illuminating, prompting self-analysis, an endeavour that can only be useful in understanding oneself better.  After all, many of us can surely identify with what Lewis Carroll wrote in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”

It was Henry Marsh, a celebrated neurosurgeon, who once so perceptively said: ‘what are we if we don’t try to help others…we’re nothing, nothing at all.’ These words were uttered in the closing moments of ‘The English Surgeon’ an emotionally charged BBC film that looks at Marsh’s charitable work in Ukraine.

Marsh, and his fellow surgeon Ivan Petrovich, make a formidable team, despite the limitations placed upon them in Ukraine with respect to equipment and facilities.  The film presents each encounter with a patient as an existential experience for both the medics and the patients.  Unsurprisingly, Marsh is at his most comfortable when he can offer hope to person sitting opposite; but then there are the inevitable encounters with people where there is, medically speaking, no hope.  And then there are the cases where the decision to operate is an agonising one – where the risk of intervening might just be too high. But whatever the situation, Marsh is always looking for ways to help and he is visibly frustrated when he encounters terminal cases, where there is nothing more to be done.

As the film unfolds we see the limitations of medicine and surgery laid bare. Despite the technology and expertise that exists in a consulting room or an operating table, the substantive existential questions remain extant.  What is the value of life? How can people find meaning in their lives when they are terminally ill?

 These questions are posed, but not answered in ‘The English Surgeon’.  More reflection is offered in Marsh’s superb book, recently published: ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’.  Marsh talks candidly about his failures, his disdain for the National Health Service as it is currently constituted and his frustration with what he sees as its overwhelming and desperately stifling bureaucracy.

Do No Harm

Marsh’s candid account of the agonies of balancing risk, operating where there is little hope and dealing with the aftermath provides a powerful insight into the life of a neurosurgeon and the ethical dilemmas that they face each every day of their working lives. Most of us would find it incredibly difficult to function in such an environment, where existentialism and ethics are brutally real, rather than abstract concepts we have the luxury of debating at a distance.

The life of a neurosurgeon is unique, but embodies those meaningful words of Albert Pike: ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal’.

 Check out ‘The English Surgeon’ on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOwsD38VxwQ and

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Do-No-Harm-Stories-Surgery/dp/0297869876/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396891701&sr=1-1&keywords=first+do+no+harm

Look at Etty Hillesum’s entry in Wikipedia and you’ll see that her occupation is listed as ‘writer’.  In actuality, she was so much more than that; anyone who has read her diaries, or secondary sources based on them, would be strongly inclined to bestow upon her the moniker of ‘mystic’ too.  Such mysticism was inextricably linked to her life-circumstances, which consisted of much adversity and ultimate disaster in the indescribable horror of Auscwhitz.

Prior to reading Patrick Woodhouse’s book ‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ I had read only short extracts of Hillesum’s writings. What I had read impressed me as spiritually mature and a profound insight into an individual who had succeeded in transcending the appalling conditions Nazi Germany had imposed on the Jewish population of Amsterdam. And so I wanted to read more, but rather than immediately diving in to Hillesum’s translated diaries, I decided to try Woodhouse’s book first.

Etty Hillesum

Woodhouse painstakingly pieces together Hillesum’s life from a dysfunctional childhood, through integration and the emergence of some form of order out of chaos. As her personality developed, Hillesum embarked upon a spiritual journey; as she discovered her true self, she discovered God.   It was this relationship that carried her through a life beset with unimaginable difficulties and turmoil, ending with death in a Nazi concentration camp. It was through the grace of God, and a life of prayer, that Hillesum was able to transcend the despair and cruelty that threatened to engulf her. It was this relationship that taught her that hate was a ‘sickness of the soul’ and it should be put aside at all costs, even although the reasons to hate grew stronger and stronger each day.

Woodhouse succeeds in weaving together the strands of Etty’s life. And so we see her as a deeply spiritual, although not religious, person who connects profoundly with her inner-self and with God.  Here he quotes from her diaries:

“Quite suddenly I had the impression that I wasn’t alone, that there were two of us.  I felt as if I consisted of two people who were squashed tightly together and felt so good and so warm as a result.  I was in such close touch with myself, full of inner warmth, and felt utterly self-sufficient….I discovered with no small satisfaction that I got on very well with myself”.  

That Hillesum’s mysticism was grounded in the reality of everyday life with its struggles and disappointments speaks very directly to us in our modern age, and that is one of the reasons why Woodhouse’s book is so important.  Hillesum’s growing spiritual awareness was not grounded in any formal religion, although it had a distinct non-institutionalised Christian flavour; her faith was experiential rather than academic and as such it was possessed of an intensity that is difficult to fully describe.  Moreover, Hillesum’s journey of transformation is a reminder to the modern reader that a spiritual awakening is a transformative event (or events) and is a deeply personal experience.

‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ was a pleasure to read; Woodhouse’s style is engaging and the end-result is a book that is touching, powerful and thought-provoking in equal measure. As such, it is one of those books that will benefit from multiple-reading; there is so much to discover and re-discover in its pages.

From the website of the publisher of my new book:

The Crystal Bard Press are delighted to have published Scott Peddie’s new book Embracing Imperfection, a collection of poetry inspired by his experiences of bipolar affective disorder. Scott is a scientist and Christian minister whose wide and deep concerns include contemplative prayer and social justice as well as mental health advocacy. He writes two blogs, Christian Conjectures and An Uneasy Awakening which contain much that is insightful, challenging and enlightening. Proceeds of the sale of Embracing Imperfection will be donated to Aware Defeat Depression NI. It is also available in Kindle format here.

Visit the Crystal Bard Books website here: http://www.crystalbard.com/wordpress/

David R. Dow is a fascinating character.  As the Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the Rorschach Visiting Professor of History at Rice University, his academic credentials are extensive.   Aside from academia, Dow works tirelessly as a death penalty lawyer and has represented more than one hundred inmates at their state and federal appeals. In addition, twelve years ago Dow started the Texas Innocence Network, an organization that uses University of Houston law students to investigate claims of innocence filed by Texas prisoners.

Such is the backdrop to Dow’s latest book, ‘The Autobiography of an Execution’.  In this remarkable book, Dow talks candidly about his life and the enormous strains placed upon himself, his colleagues and his family.  The pressure his ‘vocation’ exerts is relentless, often stepping in to represent clients at the eleventh hour when there appeals are almost exhausted. What emerges is a deeply moving autobiography, where Dow comes across as someone who is driven to do the right thing by his clients, many of whom have been poorly represented at the initial trial stage. Moreover, he talks with great insight about the deeply dysfunctional backgrounds of majority of those sentenced to death and makes a cogent case for more targeted early intervention strategy.

Refreshingly, Dow is open and honest in the book about his emotions – whether that be the guilt he feels at not being able to spend as much time with his wife and son as he would like, or intensely disliking some of his clients.

An ‘Autobiography of an Execution‘ is an excellent read that charts the sadness, happiness, frustration and hopelessness that accompanies the life of a death row lawyer and a remarkable man.

You can watch David Dow talking about his book in particular, and the issues surrounding the death penalty in general, in this interview with Gary Polland and David Jones:

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived’.

The American Henry David Thoreau was nothing if not talented in a plethora of different fields; he made his mark as an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist.

Where I Lived and What I Lived For‘ is a delightful account of Thoreau’s largely solitary life and self-sufficient existence in the woods of New England. As a forerunner to the modern environmental movement, Thoreau is a passionate and persuasive advocate for ‘simple living’ lived out in a manner that recognises the inter-connectedness of all creation.

Thoreau’s call for humanity to abandon endlessly striving, materialistic existences of ‘quiet desperation’ is a relevant today as it has ever been.  His vision of a simple existence contains within it an appreciation of the beauty of nature and a spiritual dimension which is both powerful and compelling.

Where I Lived and What I Lived For‘ is accessible to first-time readers of Thoreau and contains many of his ideas that are  further developed in later publications.

I have accumulated thousands of books over the years, but I would hazard a guess that perhaps only a handful of those would fit into the category of ‘must haves’  or ‘books that are so enriching/life-affirming/insightful that I could not do without them! Roger Housden’s For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics’ is one such of those books though.  In it he offers 98 of the most compelling poems from both historic and contemporary Christian writers, commonly referred to as mystics on account of their relationship with God and how they articulate this to the wider community.

The variety of authors and the breadth and depth of their poetry is a wonderful reflection of the range of experience and style of recounting that experience that is extant. And so, through Housden, we have access to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the fire of St. Augustine, and on through the medieval insights of Meister Eckhart, St. Francis of Assisi and the visionary ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila and on to more contemporary writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Merton and R.S. Thomas.  With each poem, Housden provides a brief, but insightful commentary that prompts the reader to revisit each poem with new eyes and to meditate on the words more deeply.

Housden’s collection tackles a plethora of different theses which reflects the concerns of believers over the years and in current times.  What is evident is that faith is always beautiful, but sometimes painful; the ecstatic and joyful are an integral part of the experiential encounter with the divine.

Through the medium of poetry, the reader can fully enter in to the intensity of experience that the mystic articulates using expressive and profound words, concepts and motifs. But that is not all; the mystic poets transcendent words as they point towards a truth that cannot be truly expressed in human terms, but can only be comprehended via an individual encounter with God.

And so I shall leave you with the words of one of the Christian mystics featured in Housden’s book – Johannes Tauler, a follower of Meister Eckhart, who  wrote ‘The Mysterious Place‘:

St Augustine says that there is a mysterious place
deep in the soul that is beyond time and this world, a part
higher than that which gives life and movement to 
the body; true prayer so raises the heart that God can
come into this innermost place, the most disinterested,
intimate, and noble part of our being, the seat of our unity.
It is His eternal dwelling-place, and
into this grand and mysterious kingdom He pours
the sweet delight of which I have spoken. Then is man no
longer troubled by anything: he is recollected, quiet, and
really himself, and becomes daily more detached,
spiritualized, and contemplative, for God is within him,
reigning and working in the depths of his soul.

The American Novelist and Essayist Kurt Vonnegut is an intriguing figure that held a nuanced, and somewhat unconventional view on religion and faith. While he explicitly rejected the divinity of Jesus, he was nevertheless an ardent follower of his moral teachings and example. Often identifying himself as an agnostic or atheist, he also frequently spoke and wrote of God. His overarching philosophy centred on free-thought which lead him down some interesting philosophical avenues and informed his writing.

Take for example Vonnegut’s brilliant collection of essays entitled God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.  The premise of the book is that Vonnegut employs Dr. Jack Kevorkian (the infamous euthanasia activist) to give him a series of near-death experiences.  In so doing, Kevorkian facilitates Vonnegut’s brief conversations with St. Peter and access to heaven and those interesting characters in it. And so in the afterlife, Vonnegut interviews an eclectic mix of people that includes such notaries as Adolf Hitler, William Shakespeare and Isaac Asimov. What results is a fascinating and  humerous look at the after-life in which Vonnegut once again displays a more nuanced understanding of the divine than his purportedly humanistic moniker would seemingly allow.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is well worth a read, whatever your stance on faith and religion.