Books, August 2013
A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles
By Thich Nhat Hanh, illustrated by Wietske Vriezen. Plum Blossom Books, 2012. 61 pages. $14.95/hardcover; $6.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 5 and up.
Reviewed by Claire J. Salkowski
In the harried and hectic world we live in, how do we find time to cultivate a profound sense of calm, stillness, and the ability to reflect deeply? How do we begin to teach this to our children? As an educator of young children and a Quaker who knows the importance of listening carefully in the deepest of silence, I have sought to create a way to teach these important lessons to children for many years. The ability to become still and silent in order to hear the voice within is critical to developing the ability to self-reflect in deep and meaningful ways. In my work in peace education and conflict resolution, I am always searching for good resources on teaching meditation skills to children and this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master himself, provides just the right direction.
Although he speaks directly to children, the book’s message and simple sequence are techniques that work equally well with adults who may want to begin such a practice or assist children in the development of their own meditation skills. Whether practiced alone, as a family, or in the classroom, this practice can benefit children just as it has enriched and instructed humanity for centuries.
With characteristic simplicity and the clarity that comes from his own sustained practice in the art of mindful meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh has created a true gem of a book for children, parents, and teachers. As the Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee describes in his introduction, “pebble practice” or pebble meditation is “a tangible way for children and families to return to their breathing and their bodies and connect with the world around them.” With colorful and delightful illustrations by Wietske Vriezen, this book outlines how to introduce children to the simple practice of meditation using something that speaks to every child, for what child has not picked up stones and lovingly held them close, collected them, pocketed them or used them for their own unique purposes?
Each of the four pebbles represents an aspect of nature that stands for qualities and behaviors that encourage us to reach a deeper sense of inner peace and to practice it in the world. The flower, the mountain, water, and space are explained as only the Zen master can in a simple and poignant way. He speaks directly to the child, instructing him or her to draw the objects that the pebbles will represent and then to find a pebble for each object. Once the meditation begins, the pebbles are used as a way to focus the body, mind, and spirit while completing a total of twelve in-breaths and out-breaths. There are other suggestions detailed such as using a flower as a center or focal point and closing with a small bell to create a lovely sense of ritual. Practice sheets, pebble meditation cards, instructions for creating a simple bag to hold the pebbles, and a song are also included as well as a list of additional resources.
This simple yet exquisite little book is a tool we can use to engage and instruct children and ourselves in the art and practice of mindful meditation in order to make the world, or at least our little corner of the world, a lot happier and a little more peaceful, one pebble at a time.
Claire J. Salkowski is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., where she has worked in the First-day and camping programs. She has taught in both public and private schools and founded Free State Montessori School, where she is educational director; she also teaches in the graduate education department at Goucher College.
Peace Education, Third Edition
By Ian M. Harris and Mary Lee Morrison. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012. 284 pages. $39.95/paperback; $14.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Dave Austin
With all our nation has been through lately—from the horror of the Sandy Hook shooting, to the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing and its violent denouement, to the daily toll of chaos and carnage around the world that we see on cable news and online—it feels to me like the third edition of Peace Education could not have arrived at a more opportune or appropriate time.
This text, which is for educators who teach any grade level in almost any educational setting, lays out both the theory and practice of peace education. This area of study covers the history of peace movements, the lives and good works of those who fought, struggled, and in many cases died in the name of peace, and various ways to integrate the topic into our curricula. The authors state over and over the importance of creating educational programs and activities which emphasize the development of empathy, compassion, and community-building skills. As the authors define it, peace education “do[es] not focus only on national security issues but also include[s] the study of social justice, human rights, [economic] development, feminism, racism, nonviolence, and strategies for social change.” Each of these areas of concern is reviewed thoroughly in the text.
Teachers looking for grade-specific curricula and lesson plans will not find them here. However, the authors have provided a number of resources for planning and developing classroom materials. I anticipate spending a significant amount of time during the coming months leafing through my dog-eared copy, looking up the texts and articles mentioned within these chapters.
Educators working in Friends schools and Friends who teach in different settings will appreciate the frequent references to Quakers in this book, particularly in the early chapters. But Harris and Morrison draw from a variety of sources, including individuals and histories from the predictable, such as Gandhi, to the perhaps less well-known, such as Jane Addams.
For public school teachers like me who might be interested in trying to integrate peace education into their classrooms, the question in this ever-more violent world isn’t why, but how or when. So much of what teachers have to do right now is driven by standardized testing, covering state-mandated “standards” derived from the so-called “Common Core.” And I can speak from experience when I say that not much of what is contained in Peace Education is part of that. But it is vital. It is essential, in fact. Peace education may not be specifically contained in a set of reform-driven bullet points, but it is at the common core of our humanity; and if we are truly seeking answers to what is literally killing us (and our children) and what’s left of our culture, we need to see it as being as important as math or science or reading. These authors have done a great service by updating this text so that those of us who are driven to do this important work will have the tools to do so.
Dave Austin is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. He lives in Marlton, N.J., where he teaches middle school social studies.
God and Decision-Making: A Quaker Approach
By Jane Mace. Britain Yearly Meeting, 2012. 144 pages. $17.00/paperback; $3.50/eBook.
Reviewed by Marty Grundy
Friends in North America can learn from our brothers and sisters in the British Isles when it comes to the discipline of meetings for business. While they may have gone all soft and fuzzy about their theology and their sense—displayed in some other publications—that Quakerism is no more and no less than what modern practitioners say it is, their actual practice of decision-making seems more grounded than ours.
Like other British authors studying Quakerism, Mace uses questionnaires, interviews, and observation, as well as readings from mostly modern writers on the subject. She examines the tension between the spaciousness required for worship and the constraints of busy modern schedules. Other topics include discipline, unity, discernment, and clerks and clerking. As a former adult literacy educator she explores the unusual Quaker practice of reading aloud and scribing, practices that she finds inherently inclusive. She concludes with four ways in which new Friends can learn the culture of decision-making.
I came away with the sense that British Friends are more disciplined in their meetings for business than most (but not all) of us are on this side of the Atlantic. They clearly understand that a Friends meeting for business is not a democracy; not everyone needs or is entitled to be heard. Friends rise to speak and wait to be recognized by the clerk. Often the clerk does not call on everyone, but drafts a minute to read for amendment and eventual approval. More authority is given to the clerk to gather the sense of the meeting without feeling the need to hear every opinion at length. There is more trust in the process. No one questions that the minutes will be drafted and read back in the face of the meeting. The minutes are short, but sharing them out loud is an integral part of the discernment and decision-making process. They contain only the decision with a minimal explanation. The clerk does not seek approval, but instead asks “Is this acceptable?” Rather than saying “I approve,” British Friends say “I hope so” implying the hope that they have correctly discerned divine will. The response is both provisional and a declaration of faith.
The author quotes Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice on the need for the body to uphold the clerks in prayer while they try to discern the sense of the meeting and while they draft a minute. I underline the importance of this with two examples from my own experience. At a yearly meeting session many years ago, after a long, wearying session, I was trying to draft a minute while Friends were chatting among themselves. No words came to me, and various individuals tried to help by passing me slips of paper with suggested wordings. It was an uncentered atmosphere and I felt unheld. In contrast, at Friends General Conference Central committee meetings, I felt focused and upheld. Often words came to me that expressed the sense of the meeting while Friends were still offering opinions. When it came time to finish drafting the minute Friends would be still and at least some were upholding me in prayer. Mace expands on an understanding of “upholding” to include the discipline of Friends while a minute is being drafted. She offers her experience of questioning her own need to speak and accepting the possibility of not being heard; the outcome was a sense of peace that unity had occurred.
Mace concludes with suggestions for how Friends might teach one another the disciplined practice of meetings for worship with attention to business. Learning by example, of course, works beautifully but only if there are sufficiently disciplined, seasoned Friends to model the practice. We need to articulate clearly so that inquirers will know what our specific expectations and practices are. She recommends limited-length, focused study groups. Finally, she recommends role-play demonstrations, particularly in larger gatherings of younger Friends.
In short, this is a helpful book that would encourage thoughtful discussion in many meetings.
Marty Grundy, a member of Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting, has served at various times as clerk and recording clerk of her monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings, and recording clerk of FGC’s Central and Religious Education committees.
Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War
Edited by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 256 pages. $30.00/paperback; $23.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Anthony Manousos
The concept of “just peacemaking” is one of the most important recent developments in interfaith and ecumenical social activism, though it is not as widely known as it deserves. This eminently practical, as well as deeply theological, approach is helping people of different faiths to find common ground and work together for peace. As a Quaker peace activist who has been involved with interfaith peacemaking for over a decade, I find this approach extremely exciting and hopeful.
The idea of just peacemaking originated with Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary and an Evangelical Christian who was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr (Obama’s favorite theologian). Niebuhr, one of America’s most influential theologians in the 1950s, gave up on pacifism during WWII and became a “Christian realist,” justifying war in situations where Christians must confront what he saw as inherently evil systems like Nazism and Communism.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when just war theorists and Christian realists were justifying the “war against terror” and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Stassen questioned this response on practical as well as theological grounds and put together an anthology called Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (2008).
To follow up that book, Susan Thistlethwaite, a United Methodist pastor as well as professor and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, published Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War. This fascinating book contains chapters by leading Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars that explore the practical application of and theological basis for just peacemaking from Abrahamic faith perspectives. These scholars don’t all agree on every point—God forbid, since that would be boring—but they are in general agreement that the practices of just peacemaking are consistent with the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an.
This is good news indeed. If Muslims, Jews and Christians of various denominations agree that peacemaking is a top priority, and agree on practical ways to achieve this goal, there is hope that religion can help in a troubled and violent world.
The only disappointment I have with this book is the lack of a Quaker perspective. All of the theologians included are “people of the book” who rely mainly upon scriptural authority to justify their views. I would love to have seen a Quaker theologian discuss the spiritual and experiential basis for just peacemaking. It is our Quaker conviction that peacemaking efforts are most effective when they spring from an experience of inner peace, when we listen to our Inward Guide and follow the leadings of the Spirit. This inward experience leads to outward practices such as consensus decision-making as well as to our social testimonies, a way of life that fosters peace and justice.
Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book to Friends and to others who have a serious commitment to ending war and promoting “shalom,” the biblical word that includes inner peace, social harmony, and justice. I also look forward to a follow-up book that includes those of non-Abrahamic faiths, such as Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and humanists.
Anthony Manousos, a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting, is a peace activist, teacher, author, and editor, whose most recent book is entitled Quakers and the Interfaith Movement (published by Quaker Universalist Fellowship, 2011).
The Book of Job: Annotated & Explained
Translation and annotation by Donald Kraus. SkyLight Paths Publishing and Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012. 216 pages. $16.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Susan Jeffers
This easy-to-use volume provides an excellent introduction to the Old Testament Book of Job, including a summary of key translational and interpretational challenges. Then follows a new translation of Job itself with notations and explanations on each facing page. The biblical text is arranged to show its literary structure; the layout helps the reader keep track of the speakers and arguments, and the introductory paragraph at the beginning of each new segment also keeps one from getting lost in the sometimes complex arguments. Much shorter and less technical than a full commentary, this book is useful to both those new to Job as well as readers already familiar with the text.
Job has long fascinated readers for its enigmatic presentation of human suffering, particularly the suffering of the innocent. Job is a good candidate for small group discussion or individual study. The present volume would make an excellent companion to such exploration, particularly if the reader(s) also have available one or two standard translations such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), New International Version (NIV), or Jewish Study Bible, and perhaps an additional commentary or set of Study Bible notes.
The author’s original translation is interesting and worth comparing to others, especially in conjunction with the annotations and corresponding Study Bible notes. Reading poetry in translation is always a challenge, and having multiple expert voices ready at hand helps a lot! I appreciated Kraus’s explanation of why he renders Shaddai as “The Mighty One” rather than “The Almighty” and other such translational choices. Whether or not one agrees, the rationale is worth considering. I found the annotations extremely helpful throughout, in shedding light on Kraus’s understanding of the text.
My only quibble with the introductory material and annotation is that the author sometimes overstates the certainty of scholarly theorizing about textual and semantic matters. Almost every verse of Job is subject to multiple understandings, and often I found myself wishing that Kraus had been a bit more tentative in his assertions. Although he begins some of his textual annotations with “This seems to be…” or “Apparently…” , in other places he implies more scholarly consensus than I believe exists. For example, he marks “the original end of Bildad’s speech” followed by “inserted verses… originally spoken by Job.” I’d have preferred such corrections to start with “Scholars believe….” or some other such disclaimer. However, if a reader uses this book alongside a good study Bible, such issues should resolve themselves.
As usual whenever I review a book about the Bible, my strongest recommendation is to spend at least as much time with the biblical book itself as with the supplementary material. Kraus’s book is a worthwhile tool for engaging the biblical book of Job, which should remain the reader’s primary focus.
Susan Jeffers is a member of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting. She teaches online Bible and Biblical Greek courses for Bethany Theological Seminary, Knox College of Toronto School of Theology, and the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership.
Love Changes Things: Even in the World of Politics
By Caroline Cottom. iUniverse, 2012. 210 pages. $18.95/paperback; $3.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
Caroline Cottom was a young woman working as a community-organizing consultant in rural Tennessee in the early 1980s when a challenge and a leading changed the course of her life. The challenge came from a leader of the peer counseling movement she was part of: each one of you can decide to be powerful in ending the threat of nuclear war. The leading was startlingly clear: build a relationship with Al Gore.
Love Changes Things is the highly readable personal account of what happened when one woman listened to and followed where she was being led. On one level it is a story of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign told by a member who started in a local chapter then moved to national leadership, working behind the scenes on legislative strategy, and up front in international delegations. On another level it is a story of being faithful. Caroline Cottom’s spirituality, not explicitly religious and significantly dream-based, may be unfamiliar territory for some Quakers, but her faithfulness rings true.
The book recounts the inspiring story about how one person can make a difference. Most compelling, however, is how the story illustrates the power of love. Her leading was not just to try to influence people in politics, but to love them. Before making a call, she would find her way to a place of unconditional love for that person. In a meeting, she would engage with ideas and policy, but only within the larger context of reaching for a way to communicate her love for the whole person. She found a way to build real human relationships with legislators, low-level aides, and crusty off-putting policy wonks. As Quakers we talk about this kind of love, but all of us could use a reminder of what it might look like in sustained daily practice, and a challenge to practice a little more courageously ourselves. Love Changes Things does just that.
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.
And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life—Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders
By Huston Smith (with Phil Cousineau). New World Library, 2012. 207 pages. $15.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Michael Glaser
The insights and recollections in And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life provide a fascinating and useful context within which to better understand Huston Smith’s life-long journey (93 years and counting!) and exploration of the religions of the world.
Smith, recognized as one of the great teachers of world religions, has written 16 books, including the classic, The World’s Religions, which has sold over three million copies and been translated into more than 12 languages. He also published the New York Times best seller, Why Religion Matters, and he was the focus of the five-part television series, The Wisdom of Faith, hosted by Bill Moyers. And Live Rejoicing can serve as a wonderful introduction for a more serious student of Smith’s work, or as a charming conclusion for one already immersed in the wisdom and insightful clarity of Smith’s mind.
The subtitle of the book, Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders, serves as a useful description, for this book is part memoir, part reflection, and part storytelling of events from a rich and richly lived life.
While on one hand Smith offers his perspective on the state of religion in the United States today— we “are less clear about our values, what is important in life…we are less able to see the Infinite in the finite, the Transcendent in the immanent…and we have lost our way metaphysically, which is to say we have lost sight of the Great Chain of Being with its multiple levels of reality”—he also lets us know that “to my satisfaction at least, I have identified the referent of the three honorific encomiums that I cited: beauty, love and joy. They describe Existence in primal pristine glory, which habituation has not blurred.”
Of primary importance to Smith, “what it’s all about” is 1) trying to discern and understand reality—as much of existence as our human facilities are capable of comprehending; and 2) trying to figure out how we can best live within the context of that reality. For Smith, it boils down to some very practical notions that he illustrates through memorable encounters with an amazing set of friends. For example: “Try to be a little kinder” (Aldous Huxley) and “What we have to be is what we are” (Thomas Merton). There are, Smith has concluded, two categorical and unconditional virtues: gratitude and empathy. He asserts that no matter how seldom it is heard, things are getting better, and he has arrived, as did Dag Hammarskjold, at a perspective which allows “Praise, praise for it all.”
I find it useful to compare And Live Rejoicing with Robin R. Meyer’s fascinatingly insightful book, Saving Jesus from the Church, which I happened to be reading at the same time, because I struggled for a while with the contrast. Meyer’s book seeks to come to terms with some of the major difficulties in contemporary Christianity and its implications for the world, and Smith seems far less engaged in applying what he has learned to institutions or policy. What I discovered however, is that both authors aim to show how the great religious teachers seek to free the profoundly clear and elegant messages of gratitude and compassion that all religions teach from the clutches of those who want to own and control them. Meyer, in fact, ends his book by suggesting that “the most important question we can ask now is not about what we believe. It is about how we relate.” Huston Smith’s And Live Rejoicing demonstrates with clarity and grace just what the notion of “how we relate” might look like and mean.
It is a winning book, and well worth reading.
Michael S. Glaser is a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He served as poet laureate of Maryland from 2004-2009, recently co-edited The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, and was one of the leaders of “Bread for the Journey: A Celebration of Poetry and the Human Spirit” held at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in April 2013.
Heartfulness: Renewing Heart, Mind, and Spirit on Retreat and Beyond
By Valerie Brown. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 421), 2012. 36 pages. $6.50/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Judith Favor
This pithy guide, written in the spirit of continuing revelation—the root system of the Quaker tree of life—offers considerable wisdom for Friends on the path to personal restoration. Valerie Brown bids us retreat from life’s busyness, taking “time-outs” to replenish the energies of heart, mind, and spirit. She defines retreat as “a time away, an intentional separation from normal preoccupations and cares in order to bring greater awareness to God’s immediate and transcendent presence. Times of rest, renewal, and reflection invite us into the challenging work of asking big questions.”
The author introduces a wide variety of retreats including yoga, wilderness, family-oriented, self-directed, monastic, and meditation retreats. Fuller focus on silence and specific attention to the body would have given this pamphlet additional power, in my opinion. I find great value in activities such as chanting, gardening, massage therapy, soaking in hot springs, walking a labyrinth, or hiking scenic trails. Nevertheless, Brown shares the many benefits of retreats and how best to make use of them.
I serve on the Silent Retreat committee of Southern California Quarterly Meeting. During our annual retreat, we were inspired by Brown’s pamphlet to discern, mostly in silence, the theme of this year’s silent retreat. We drew practical and thematic guidance from Heartfulness to plan the flow of the retreat and will be encouraging registrants to read the pamphlet and consider Brown’s important queries:
Notice your longing to go on retreat. Is this the time? Would a retreat give you the time and space to explore…
- What has meaning and purpose in my life?
- What is missing?
- What am I avoiding?
What brings me most alive?
Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting and has served on the Silent Retreat committee since 2001. The next retreat, “Look Well to the Growing Edge,” will be held Labor Day weekend in Oceanside, Calif. Contact [email protected] for information.
A World of Prayer: Spiritual Leaders, Activists, and Humanitarians Share their Favorite Prayers
Edited by Rosalind Bradley. Orbis Books, 2012. 228 pages. $25.00/hardcover; $20.00/paperback.
Reviewed by Ellen Michaud
Listening to the chanted prayers of Buddhist monks, a Surah from the Qur’an, a petition from an Anglican priest, or a ministry from a Quaker rising from a back bench, it’s clear that prayer is a way to push aside the daily chatter and swirling chaos in which we live, open ourselves to the Presence, and be held in a joyous relationship of loving kindness that frequently brings us to tears, revelation, humility, and overwhelming love.
Prayer is a gift. But the forms that it takes, the words or nonwords in which it’s expressed, can also be a kind of Rosetta stone that allows us to see the differences between one religion and another that illuminates our common search for the Divine.
Nowhere is this more easily evident that in Rosalind Bradley’s small book A World of Prayer: Spiritual Leaders, Activists, and Humanitarians Share their Favorite Prayers. The book contains 109 prayers Bradley has collected from across the globe; her hope is that combined with their authors’ reflections, the prayers will “shed new light on [the] differences [between us] and encourage readers to enrich their own faith while at the same time being more open to understanding other religions.” Her goal, as expressed in a prayer from the Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan:
Your Light is in all forms
Your Love in all beings.
Allow us to recognize You
in all Your holy names and forms.
In large part, Bradley succeeds. She includes traditional Western prayers, such as this excerpted prayer of petition written by Marian Wright Edelman and offered by Camila Batmanghelidjh, who works with traumatized children in London:
O God, forgive our rich nation where small babies die of cold quite legally.
O God, forgive our rich nation where small children suffer from hunger quite legally.
O God, forgive our rich nation where toddlers and school children die from guns sold quite legally.
O God, forgive our rich nation that lets the rich to get more at the expense of the poor quite legally.
Bradley also includes contemplative prayers in which the person praying simply rests in the Presence. As Jesuit theologian James Alison translates St. Teresa of Avila, “…Everything comes and goes / God, still, just there…”
Prayers of adoration, prayers of thankfulness, prayers for forgiveness, even a few lines of scripture to hold in the still, quiet moments of lectio divina are found within the pages of this small book.
Occasionally the meaning of the word “prayer” is somewhat stretched, as various contributors appear to make political points or offer a seemingly mundane meditation on the human condition in general. In practice, the line between meditation and prayer often flexes. But the reflections offered in this book by several of those who offer meditations as prayer—in one case, amounting to a deification of human potential—would be more comfortably placed in a book on human psychology.
There is also an uncomfortable whisper of elitism about the book. In most cases the contributors are servant leaders who have contributed much to the world. And although it’s interesting to hear what those moved to great works have prayed, I can’t help thinking that A World of Prayer might have been even more valuable to the reader’s spiritual formation had it included prayers from a cow herder in Botswana, a prostitute in Tijuana, or a student in Afghanistan. These fellow travelers may not be “prominent”—which is what the jacket copy says of contributors to A World of Prayer—but they have much to share.