Everyone has an individual way of dealing with all the bad things going on in the world. For me, it’s very important to stay connected to a spiritual point of view, which helps to restore perspective, awaken hope, and foster joy and gratitude in the face of darkness and despair. In fact, it’s been a surprising but welcome fact that this long-standing interest of mine has lately received a welcome jolt of activity, and that forces of renewal and inspiration have sprung forth in areas of my life where I was not even aware they were lacking. This is a strange but very wonderful phenomenon, one which gives me a sense of responsibility, as well as of thankfulness.
To make each crisis fruitful, to take advantage of the wake-up call it’s meant to be, I look for guidance from wiser minds and hearts who can help me navigate through stormy times toward a better future. Fortunately, there are many excellent books which do just that, and I’ve read several lately that I’d like to share with you. I’m always interested in your suggestions, as well.
Human beings have always sought to connect with the divine world, and those who took up this path were called initiates. Is there still a legitimate form of initiation today? In Old and New Mysteries (Floris Books, 2014), Rev. Bastiaan Baan explores different forms of initiation that have existed in the past, the radical transformation that took place through the deed of Christ, and the renewed form of spiritual awakening that can enable us to meet the challenges of our world today. When we are able to see what is happening outwardly in the world and in our personal lives as trials that can lead to a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, we may find the courage to face them more steadfastly. Drawing on the words and experiences of many mystics and seekers throughout history, as well as his own lifetime of spiritual practice, priestly service, and pastoral care, Rev. Baan opens a door for the modern person to connect in a new way to this eternal quest.
On the occasion of His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday, he spent five days with his dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu to discuss the theme of how, in the midst of so much evil and wrongness in the world, we can find our way to joy. From the contents of these meetings, along with references to supporting scientific research and other commentary, author Douglas Abrams has composed The Book of Joy, (Viking, 2016) a wonderfully inspiring distillation of the wisdom of two men who have come through some of the most difficult and tragic events of our era, and found the true sources of inner strength. Though they come from very different spiritual paths, they demonstrate that no conflict is necessary when one has progressed far enough along the way; their delight in each other and in the mysteries of earthly existence shows that when we are able to pass through opposition and struggle without allowing it to kill our humanity, there is a place where we can meet, and that place is joy itself. A very useful section of inner exercises and meditations ends the book, giving us a set of practical tools we can put to immediate use in the search for a more joyful life.
Why on Earth? Biography and the Practice of Human Becoming (SteinerBooks, 2013) by Signe Eklund Schaefer gives even more tools and practices for finding meaning and purpose in life, this time through the particular lens of our human life story. Out of the world view known as anthroposophy, which she has worked with as an adult educator and researcher for more than thirty years, the author describes how individual biographies are embedded in a much larger spiritual reality, as well as in the complex web of relationships with all the other people we encounter in life. Learning about some of the recurring patterns and soul types that occur throughout this journey can help us to better understand ourselves and others, to tolerate and even celebrate our differences, and to find peace with some of the difficulties that meet us along the way.
Though Hermann Hesse’s fiction is well known in English, most of his poetry has not been translated into English, depriving us of another facet of this deeply spiritual author’s wisdom. To remedy that lack, The Seasons of the Soul (North Atlantic Books, 2011) presents over sixty newly translated poems, divided into five thematic sections — on love, imagination, nature, the quest for the divine, and the seasons and cycles of life — that are each introduced by the translator with information about Hesse’s life and spiritual perspective. In describing Hesse’s poetry, I can’t do better than the words of translator Ludwig Max Fischer:
“Hesse wrote to strengthen the will and the value of the individual, not toward selfish ego gratification, but toward a greater understanding of life. He teaches from experience, from wisdom acquired through many trials and tribulations, many great adventures, and deep, inner explorations. Hesse presents a rich harvest of insights and practical advice, but refrains from easy solutions and rigid, dogmatic ideologies. His gentle voice, full of truth, reminds us of the greater dimensions, the larger forces acting in our lives, beyond the immediate dramas of fear and desire.”
I can think of no more necessary mode of being, no more vital path of learning today. In very different ways, each of these books speaks the same message and seeks to lead us on a path toward these larger dimensions, toward greater strength, wisdom, and joy. If any of them calls to you, I hope that you will find it a helpful guide on your own journey.