Top 16 Books of 2015

by Mark Votava

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1. We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope: Reflections to Honor His Centenary (1915-2015) edited Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo.

This book is amazing! It has been one hundred years since the birth of Thomas Merton, who was the most widely read writer on spirituality in the twentieth century and was a voice for the recovery of the contemplative tradition. This book has over one hundred contributors who have been massively influenced by Thomas Merton and his writings over the years. They tell their stories about how they came to discover Thomas Merton and the shaping effects it had on them.

“Although there are so many aspects of the wisdom tradition that he recovered, there is only one that I want to comment on here. I believe that Thomas Merton almost single handedly pulled back the veil and helped us see that we all had lost the older tradition of contemplation. It was no longer taught in any systematic way in the church. Clergy, religious and laity ‘recited prayers’ and meticulously ‘performed’ liturgies, but the older methods for quieting the mind and heart, and seeing ‘spiritual things spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:13), had been lost both in theory and practice by almost all of us, even the ‘contemplative Orders.’ It was nobody’s bad will, but simply what happened after we separated from the Eastern Church in 1054, and then allowed the dualistic and calculating mind to take over after the Reformation and the wrongly named Enlightenment.” (Richard Rohr, contributing writer)

2. Life’s Great Questions by Jean Vanier.

Life’s Great Questions is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time! Jean Vanier, who is the founder of L’Arche, has lived a lifetime of searching questions where love, compassion, community, and solidarity have formed his way of life. Some of the questions that fill this book include: What are we living for?, How can we love?, Why is there so much suffering?, What is reality?, How can we be of service to one another and to the world?, and What matters in life? This is a deep, thought provoking book that will lead us to understand our connectedness throughout life.

“To grow, to expand our conception of reality, we must frequently be shaken from what I like to call our ‘cozy certitudes.’ We must be open to people whose experiences and perspectives are very different from our own. We must listen to them, take time with them, and hear the truth in their witness. This is why the diversity of humanity is vital. We can never say to someone who is of a different race, to someone who has a disability, to someone who seems a bit crazy, that they do not have an essential place in the human body. Each of us has an essential place.” 

3. Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution by Diana Butler Bass.

Grounded is an important book for the twenty-first century. Diana Butler Bass writes about how we need to become aware of the spiritual revolution of finding God in the midst of our everyday lives in the world. She talks about the context of our natural habitat (nature) and our human geography (neighbor). She poses the questions, What if we started to discovering God in nature and neighbor throughout our lives?

“Too often are chosen neighbors… are comrades in cliquish echo chambers. The principle of clustering around likeness has driven us into even smaller groups, increasingly isolated from one another, suspicious of those who are different, surrounded by the invisible fencing of fear.”  

4. Rising Strong by Brene Brown.

Brene Brown is the masterful writer on the subject of vulnerability. In Rising Strong, she encourages us to reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling, rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth, and live this process until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. This book is about learning from our emotions in vulnerability, asking tough questions of ourselves, and unlearning what we think we know to a deeper integration. This is a challenge to enter into more vulnerability, humility, and honesty within ourselves.

“If there is one thing failure has taught me, it is the value of regret. Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom. Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. ‘No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.”

5. Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone by Tara M. Owens.

In Embracing the Body, Tara M. Owens finds value in the flesh and bone of our bodies in everyday life. She teaches us to embrace our bodies, instead of devalue them. This book shows us that our bodies are not bad or “sinful,” as some tend to think, but they are the very place where our life is lived out authentically. We are created in the image of God and are called to a beautiful embodiment of love in the world through the only thing we have, our bodies.

“So, not only is there a lot to be nervous about, there are many popular conceptions of our bodies (and exactly how they are to look, smell, feel and operate) that are worth rejecting outright, even agitating against. There is a great deal of legitimacy to the idea that separation from the world’s conception of the body is a step toward a healthy and holistic embrace of what our bodies have been intended by God to be.”

6. Soul Vows: Gathering the Presence of the Divine In You, Through You, and As You by Janet Conner.

Soul Vows explores seven deep soul explorations. These soul explorations include: 1) honoring your longing to be one, 2) recognizing the false conscious vows that have kept you fragmented, 3) gathering yourself into wholeness, 4) listening from your heart, 5) declaring and celebrating your soul vows, 6) gathering the presence of the divine, and 7) the dance of sacred unity. This is a wonderful book of extraordinary depth and wisdom. It contributes to developing a contemplative spirituality in the twenty-first century world.

“Discovering your soul vows is making a mystical dive into the deep waters that aren’t always clear and swimming toward a destination that isn’t always visible. That might sound a bit scary, but the hidden mystery is actually what makes this path so personal, so exquisite, and so beautiful. This is an opportunity to explore at the deepest levels who you can be in this earth experience. So if the going should get a little rough, know that it’s OK, and stay the course. Beauty, divine beauty, awaits.”

7. Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma by Teresa B. Pasquale.

So many people have been abused by the church which is supposed to care for others. This is sad indeed! So many people are disillusioned with what is happening around church systems that are not healthy. Teresa B. Pasquale offers hope through her book Sacred Wounds as she takes us on a path of healing from our trauma. A much needed book in our time!

“In many ways, that is the journey to navigate through suffering – it comes down to the choice to see or not. We can live in the world we have been offered, unexplained, unexamined, or we can choose to go deeper and see all the scary things, but also more acutely, all that is beautiful about reality.”

8. The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Cornel West.

In this book, Cornel West puts together some of the most powerful thoughts and ideas from the revolutionary civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a beautiful book that brings forth the true Martin Luther King Jr. that we may not have full grasp of. King writes about civil rights, the beloved community, the poverty of America, racism, the war in Vietnam, the dignity of labor, overcoming hatred, the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, nonviolence, radical love, the world house, and social change. The Radical King is truly an authentic book that leaves a legacy for Americans to follow.

“Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

9. Our Only World: Ten Essays by Wendell Berry.

This is another great Wendell Berry book! As one of my favorite environmental writers, Wendell Berry emphasizes how the local community is the place where we take care of our world. We need to stop destroying our world through irresponsible actions, as this is the only world we have. He makes the plea for us to become aware of the damage we do as we fail to honor the land at the expense of exceeding profits.

“An ecosystem, the web of relationships by which a place and its creatures sustain a mutual life, ultimately is mysterious, like life itself. We can know enough, and probably only enough, to tell us how little we know and to make us careful. At present, too ignorant to know how ignorant we are, we believe that we are free to impose our will upon the land with the utmost power and speed to gain the largest profit in the shortest time, and we believe that there are no penalties for this.”

10. The Vandana Shiva Reader by Vandana Shiva

This is a compilation of Vandana Shiva’s great writing around themes of environmental justice, biodiversity, the seed, the earth, the globalization of agriculture, water, soil, food, genetic engineering, hunger, the green revolution, and monocultures of the mind. A fascinating read! We need to think about our food, water, and soil in different ways. Vandana helps us to understand what is going on in our world to care for these resources with a faithful stewardship.

“We are all members of the earth family, stewards in the web of life. Yet corporations that claim legal personhood are now claiming the role of creator…”

11. Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Naht Hanh is one of my favorite Buddhist writers! This book emphasizes our essential need for silence as we live in a noisy world of chatter, entertainment, and efficiency. I love this book because of its focus on deep listening, the power of stillness, paying attention, and cultivating connection. Thich Nhat Hanh moved me to greater exploration around how silence can open up the depths of life.

“When you love someone, you want to offer him or her the best you have, and that is your true presence. You can love only when you are here, when you are truly present… You have to practice being here, by mindful breathing or mindful walking, or any other practice that helps you be present as a free person for yourself and for the person you love…”

12. The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith by Peter Rollins.

The Divine Magician is a wonderful book by Peter Rollins who is always controversial and stirring things up. He uses the concept of the magicians trick to show us how we have believed in God in a way that doesn’t require us to respond with engagement, concern, and care for the world. Using the terms the pledge, the turn, and the prestige; Peter Rollins shows that the way we have embraced religion needs to disappear so we can find an authentic faith. We can no longer embrace a religion of belief in the status quo comfort zones of our satisfaction to use God to fulfill our narcissistic agendas of meaninglessness in the name of truth.

“When we situate the question of faith at the level of the how rather than the what, the question regarding what it means to believe in God is transformed. In properly theological terms, the question is no longer about the existence or inexistence of some being, but rather about whether or not one is responding to a call that throws him into a deep concern and care for the world. This approach is not concerned with whether we label ourselves theist, atheist, or agnostic. Indeed, such a perspective allows us to open ourselves up to the possibility that the boundaries that supposedly separate these different positions are in fact fluid.”  

13.  What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self by Richard Rohr. 

I love anything that Richard Rohr puts out! What the Mystics Know is a book of profound wisdom where Rohr leads us to seven pathways to our deeper self. The book is a compilation of his many previous books about spirituality. The themes include: 1) the enlightenment you seek already dwells within you, 2) God is found in imperfection, 3) from profound suffering come great wisdom and joy, 4) the mystical path is a celebration of paradox, 5) contemplation means practicing heaven now, 6) to discover the truth, you must become the truth, and 7) when you are transformed, others will be transformed through you.

“Any allowing of the hidden side of things, the dark side of things – while also holding onto the attractive and knowable side – usually marks the beginning of nondual consciousness. Whenever we can appreciate the value of something, while still knowing its limitations and failures, this also marks the beginning of wisdom and nondual consciousness.”

14. Between the Darkness and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life by Joan Chittister.

Joan Chittister has written this book about paradox, the contradictions of life. When we live in the contradiction of life, we open up to the mystery within and around us. This is beyond the intellect and leads us to deeper authenticity. She confuses us with contradictions after decades of embodying a benedictine spirituality, where two things can be true at the same time. I love this book!

“Crowds are important in life but they do not constitute the real essence of what it means to be a human being. There are persons, of course, who sublimate themselves to the crowd in order to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to take on an identity that they themselves have not formed yet, to acquire an aura of the power or status of the crowd itself. Those people will never really become persons.” 

15. The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living by Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko.

This is a wonderful contribution to the path of contemplative living into the future that is interspiritual. Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko take the beauty from many traditions to form a new monasticism in the twenty-first century world. This is an ecumenical movement of deeper integration, engagement, connection, community, solidarity, humility, simplicity, and listening. A must read for anyone longing for a contemplative spirituality that is not arrogant, competitive, or dualistic.

“Dialogical dialogue can only take place when both parties are willing to enter into the worldspace of its enactment. To understand others means ‘to stand under their horizon of thought.’ One must enter into their way of seeing the world, the way in which the world is revealed to them. In this, one is laying one’s life on the line. When we truly enter into another’s understanding we may not return the same; we may find that new truths are revealed to us that we must incorporate and integrate into our own horizons. It must be a two-way street. If one is unable to open oneself in this way, then the communion is aborted, and the transformative communication that emerges cannot be brought to bear.” 

16. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Sensing God in the unexpected is what Accidental Saints is all about. God is constantly revealed through all the wrong people most of the time throughout our lives. Nadia Bolz-Weber shares with honesty her story of these Accidental Saints. This book will change the way we might understand God’s work in the world.

“…it’s tricky to try to speak of the way in which God moves in the world. It’s been done so poorly and for such self-aggrandizing reasons by so many, myself included. I’m not sure I trust myself enough to feel confident in declaring that God is involved in something, especially if it’s my own project. But I can pretty consistently see God in retrospect. I mean, in any given moment I am so filled with doubt and self-interest and ambition and neurosis that it’s hard to be tuned in to God. But after something surprising or intensely beautiful happens, usually in spite of me and my machinations, then I begin to suspect God.”

My new book The Mystical Imagination: Seeing the Sacredness of All of Life (2015) is finally done! It is available on kindle and paperback!

“Our crowded, overly-consumed, hyper-active, digitally-addicted lifestyle is draining the life out of us. We are desperate to transcend the chaos and find a better way to live. We need a mystical imagination. Get ready to be transported into the depths of meaning as Votava breaks open the contemplative path and shows you how to live your life to the fullest.” Phileena Heuertz, author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life and founding partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism

My first book The Communal Imagination: Finding a Way to Share Life Together (2014) is available on kindle and paperback also!

“Inside everyone there is a longing for community, to love and be loved. We are made in the image of a communal God. But in our hyper-mobile, individualistic, cluttered world… community is an endangered thing. And community is like working out – it takes work, sweat, discipline…  without that our muscles atrophy. Everybody wants to be fit, but not too many people want to do the work to get there. Mark’s book is sort of a workout manual, helping you rediscover your communal muscles and start building them up slowly. It is an invitation to live deep in a shallow world.”  Shane Claiborne, author and activist