By Mark Nepo. St. Martin’s Essentials, 2020. 288 pages. $18.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook.
In developing his soul, philosopher and poet Mark Nepo has searched for wisdom within diverse spiritual traditions and within his personal history, which included a life-threatening battle with cancer. The fruits of his soul work are more than 20 books of poetry and meditative writings, plus 15 audio projects. He is most famous for The Book of Awakening, which Oprah Winfrey has named as one of her “all-time Favorite Things!” That bestseller, consisting of 366—a leap year’s worth— page-long reflective essays, resembles a Christian book of daily devotions. However, instead of a Bible quotation serving as an epigraph for each reflection, a reading often leads off with a line of verse by a poet, such as William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, or Naomi Shihab Nye, or with a quotation from a sage, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rabindranath Tagore, or Lao Tzu. Most often, Nepo distills the theme of the day with an aphorism of his own. For example: “To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken.” Every entry ends with a guided meditation, centered in that day’s theme.
Nepo’s newest collection of spiritual writings, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, is a weekly reader. These essays, varying in length from two to several pages, go into greater depth and offer more ideas, images, and vignettes for the reader to dwell in. Unlike The Book of Awakening, which focuses on solitary meditation, The Book of Soul is relational. In addition to guided meditations and journal prompts, Nepo suggests many opportunities for conversation with friends and loved ones.
As stated on the back cover, The Book of Soul is divided into “four sections that mark the lifelong passages we all face: enduring our Walk in the World, until we discover Our True Inheritance, which allows us to live in the open by Widening Our Circle, as we Help Each Other Stay Awake.” Early in the book, Nepo highlights individuals who yearn for—yet resist (at least for a time)—a life more meaningful, more beautiful, more free and whole. Some of us, by will or grace, awaken to our place within the magnificent, limitless Divine. This realization helps release our fears and lets us welcome others into our circle of experience. Together, we then can mutually support one another.
I feel that Nepo, a craftsman in everything I’ve read by him, is at his best as a writer when he unfolds a story in detail. One of his most moving essays begins: “I tell these stories as a Jew.” Recounting a trip to Prague, he describes the impact of visiting a centuries-old Jewish cemetery, swollen with a hundred thousand graves, teeming with thousands of weathered memorial stones. “I spent so many years pushing off my own tradition to shape my own mind, only to find that I belong in this ancient cemetery: churned, leaning, broken, strong.” As Nepo renders his experiences in Prague, readers can feel his dawning sense of identification. “I can only say after all the stories of Jews being hunted, herded, beaten, and killed across the centuries that I am of this community.”
Yet Nepo’s way is always to universalize his insights. He continues: “And that this is a community that goes beyond Jews.”
Elsewhere in The Book of Soul, the author introduces an epigraph by Parker Palmer, whom he refers to as a good friend, and though Nepo is not a Quaker, he deepens my appreciation of the Friends tradition of engaging with queries. Each weekly reading ends with “Questions to Walk With.” Here is a representative example:
In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe a moment of doubt and what you were most deeply doubting. Then describe a moment of faith and what you had faith in. Discuss what led you to each of these moments. Then describe the fundamental nature of life that exists regardless of your doubt or faith, as you understand it.
Like many queries that a Friend may meditate upon from their book of faith and practice, Nepo’s queries remind us that despite the vagaries of our faith or doubt, there exists an eternal, holy Presence, within us and without, that opens to our sincere, humble searching.
Unlike catechism questions with fixed doctrinal answers to be established in a believer’s heart and mind, Quaker queries allow space for answers to evolve. How I or members of my Friends community answer a query today may speak to our current condition and serve as a trustworthy guide to action, and while answers may align with our testimonies, we nevertheless affirm that divine revelation is ongoing. The Inner Light that we continually seek to discern may illuminate us in yet-unforeseen ways. I recommend Nepo’s book to Friends for its expansive and inclusive vision of divine becoming.
Bob Dixon-Kolar is an associate professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He and his family are members of Evanston (Ill.) Meeting.