Following a spiritual path is about more than beliefs or intellectual conviction: it is about doing. Worship, music, scripture study, journaling, and devotional reading are among the myriad activities people engage in as they practice their beliefs. But of the many books covering many practices, the greatest number are about meditation and prayer, the fundamental practices of religions east and west.
Teach Me to Pray
Books of prayers can serve as models and guides, and books about prayer can offer motivation and encouragement for those who want to start or strengthen their prayer life. Publishers find a ready audience for both approaches: “People are desperate to find inner peace,” says Cindy Bunch, associate publisher and director of editorial at Christian publisher InterVarsity Press. “They are looking for help with inner calm, focus, mindfulness, the connection between body and soul. Our books call readers back to the rich Christian tradition of contemplative practice.”
Beginning at the beginning, Teach Us to Pray by Gordon T. Smith (IVP, out now) explores three kinds of prayer—thanksgiving, confession, and discernment—and asks readers how their lives would be different if those kinds of prayers shaped their experiences. “Through prayer... we become women and men of the kingdom,” Smith writes. “But this does not happen in one swoosh—one dramatic prayer or even a transformative prayer retreat. It comes slowly and gradually—yes, through prayer, but prayer as the pattern and rhythm of our days.” Smith is president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of systematic and spiritual theology as well as the author of Courage and Calling.
Michael Youssef uses biblical characters to teach readers how to pray, and to have the confidence that God hears and answers. In Life-Changing Prayers: How God Displays His Power to Ordinary People (Baker, Aug.), Youssef writes, “While God delights in using common, everyday people like you and me, there’s one factor that made God’s ‘ordinary heroes’ stand out from the crowd: they were people of prayer.” Atlanta pastor Youssef’s weekly television programs and daily radio programs are broadcast in 25 languages and seen worldwide, airing more than 12,000 times per week.
From Baker’s Revell imprint comes Praying God’s Promises: The Life-Changing Power of Praying the Scriptures by Linda Evans Shepherd (July), which illustrates the power of prayer with real-life stories, practical applications, examples of prayers, and guided reflections. Shepherd is the author of more than 30 books and the coauthor of the popular series the Potluck Club and the Potluck Catering Club. In the same vein, Chosen has Walking the Path of Prayer: 10 Steps to Reaching the Heart of God, by pastor and author Jack Hayford (Sept.), who keeps it basic, giving the seven simple steps to prayer outlined by Jesus. And a beloved classic in the genre is out in a new edition: How to Pray by C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, June) will draw Lewis fans as well as those seeking guidance for the practice.
There is encouragement in Fire in My Heart: Adventuring into a Life of Prayer (Muddy Pearl, Oct.) by Johannes Hartl, a pastor based in Germany, who writes about the insights he gained through prayer as he traveled the world. In Fearless Prayer (Harvest House, Aug.), Craig Hazen (Five Sacred Crossings) urges Christians not to hesitate to ask for God’s intervention, quoting the New Testament passage John 15:7, “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Hazen is director of Biola University’s Christian apologetics program. And Timeless Grace: Prayers for Every Occasion by Ellen Banks Elwell (Tyndale, out now) collects 176 prayers addressing family issues, friendship, celebrations, illness, loss, work, and more. Elwell has authored more than 20 books, including One Year Devotions for Moms and Life Is Beautiful.
Mothers can find inspiration tailored to their needs in books like The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering (Abingdon, out now) by Barbara Mahany, who uses passages from her Slowing Time and Motherprayer works to generate new prayers, essays, and reflections. “Both books pay attention to the sacred and the love lessons that dwell in the thick of the modern-day melee,” Mahany says. In 2017, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving received a starred review from PW: “[Mahany] beautifully captures how mothering—loving deeply day in and day out, even when stretched to emotional and physical limits—can itself be sacramental.” PW selected her first book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, as one of its Top 10 religion books for 2014. Also intended to inspire mothers is Prayers for the Battlefield by Heidi St. John (Tyndale Momentum, Sept.), a collection designed to help women through tough times.
Congregational prayer is central to Christian churches, and 99 Prayers Your Church Needs (But Doesn’t Know It Yet): Prayers for Unpredictable & Unusual Times (Chalice, Sept.), edited by Cara Gilger, is for churches that must help members deal with crises such as suicide or addiction. “A congregation’s needs are different than they were even a few years ago,” says Chalice Press publisher Brad Lyons. “There are so many new issues, concerns, milestones, and celebrations that may not be in the traditional prayer book or even in the imagination of those who might be tapped to offer prayers in such unusual circumstances.” The book, Lyons adds, “provides prayer kindling for pastors and church leaders—a starting point to express the joys and concerns that can sometimes elude words.” Also arguing for the centrality of the practice is Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church (Crossway, Aug.), by Atlanta pastor John Onwuchekwa, who also goes back to what Jesus taught about prayer, showing readers how it was practiced in the early church and how believers today can make prayer a priority.
Catholic publishers are adding to the genre, with books like The Prayer List by Jane Knuth (Loyola, out now), a collection of stories that emphasizes prayer as the core of the faith. “For Catholics, it’s not about Mass attendance or who’s Pope,” says executive editor Joe Durepos. “Prayer is at the heart of who we are as a faith community. We are taught formal prayer when we’re young. Later, we’re encouraged to speak to God directly.” The Prayer List refers to a list some Catholics keep of people who have asked for prayer; Knuth (Thrift Store Saints) tells how she became the keeper of her family’s list and includes the stories of others who have found comfort and help in prayer for life’s most trying experiences.
Priest Gary Caster writes in Prayer Everywhere: The Spiritual Life Made Simple (Franciscan, June) that the practice of prayer is essential for all Christ followers, and he agrees that among the many practices in Catholicism, prayer is the key to creating a relationship with God. Caster is a priest in the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., and the author of Joseph: The Man Who Raised Jesus.
How’s this for an eye-catching title? Denial Is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is by Rachel G. Hackenberg and Martha Spong (Church, out now). Both are ordained ministers who alternate essays that tell their own stories, centered on being honest with God and themselves. The book takes its title from the first essay, in which Spong wrestles with accepting her rheumatoid arthritis: “Denial became my spiritual practice because, when I examined my situation honestly, I couldn’t hold up the front of a positive attitude, even with myself,” she writes. “When I let myself have my feelings, I’m afraid of the future, anxious that I will become a burden to my spouse or my children, worried that I already am. Instead, I keep myself... busy avoiding reality.” Hackenberg is the author of Writing to God: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen; Spong is executive director of RevGalBlogPals, an international online community of clergywomen with more than 4,000 members.
In The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning (WaterBrook, Aug.), Colorado pastor Aaron Niequist (husband of bestselling author Shauna Niequist) covers a range of Christian practices—the lectionary, confession, the Eucharist, the Jesuit practice of the examen, singing hymns and spirituals—in addition to prayer. Niequist writes that reclaiming these spiritual practices—by all kinds of Christians—is crucial, because they are “infused with the power of the uncontainable Spirit of the living God.” Step-by-step instructions for novices are included.
However, prayer and other religious acts can have a dark side. In The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (Yale Univ., Oct.), Lauren F. Winner looks at how religious practices can harm as well as help, as when prayer was used to support the culture of slavery. Winner writes that her book “reads Christian practices with the aim of encouraging the church to anticipate the ways good Christian practices sometimes will... perpetuate damage.” Winner is associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and the author of Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
Meditation for All
Meditation is the foundational practice in Buddhism; Christians also use the term, but with a different meaning. When Christians talk about meditation, they mean contemplation or reflection, thinking deeply about spiritual matters. The goal of Buddhist meditation, on the other hand, is to empty the mind of thoughts in order to create calm and focus. Right?
Ralph De La Rosa doesn’t think so, and in The Monkey Is the Messenger: Meditation and What Your Busy Mind Is Trying to Tell You (Shambhala, Nov.), he argues that the belief that meditation is about ‘shutting off the mind’ is a myth. Repetitive thinking is a “natural function of the human organism that, like all other aspects of our being, serves a purpose--one that is bound up with the activity of awakening,” he writes, calling for meditators and would-be meditators to stop battling their thoughts and enjoy the practice. De La Rosa is a New York-based meditation teacher and therapist. Phakchok Rinpoche and Erric Solomon also believe meditation should not lead to guilt, but to happiness; their Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind, guides readers to a joyful meditation practice. Tech entrepreneur Solomon and Tibetan Buddhist master Rinpoche synthesize scientific research with personal stories and step-by-step exercises.
With so many books about meditation, how does a title stand out in the crowd? Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala, says, “A successful book on meditation is one that is based on a proven, which generally means very old, method but is able to connect with the modern reader, to make the practice feel immediate, fresh, relevant, achievable, and potent.” He adds that there is always room for more meditation books, if they are good.
“The most famous meditation teacher was the Buddha, who is said to have given 84,000 teachings, each one mapping to a distinct need of the listeners,” Odiseos says. “A good meditation book is determined by how genuine and effective it is and how clearly it speaks to the modern reader’s needs.”
Even children can benefit from meditation, as Marie-Christine Champeaux-Cunin and Dominique Butet write in The Magic of Meditation: Stories and Practices to Develop Gratitude and Empathy with Your Child (Shambhala, July); they present a mindfulness meditation program for children as young as three years old. Their guide for parents lays out a simple practice program that teaches Buddhist principles through the adventures of a magical dragon named Yupsi. Champeaux-Cunin is a former tech entrepreneur who now runs the Paris-based Drukpa Lineage Center; Butet is a kindergarten teacher in Paris who introduced the practice of meditation to her pupils and runs meditation workshops for children.
Buddhist publisher Wisdom has a long history and rich backlist of books on meditation, including the classic Mindfulness in Plain English. “A successful meditation book is both rooted in authentic meditation instructions and also explains the meditation technique in plain English,” says Wisdom publisher Daniel Aitken. He sees “a proliferation of books on how meditation might help people in their pursuits in everyday life, whether that is running a start-up in Silicon Valley, being more present with nature while hiking, more mindfully relating with family members, or more effectively participating in some type of social mission.”
Being present in nature is the focus of Zen on the Trail (Wisdom, Sept.) by Christopher Ives, who frames hiking as a spiritual act and urges connection with the natural world through meditation. Ives is a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College and writes about approaching nature through the ethics of Zen Buddhism in books such as Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics. In the same vein is Being Present: Cultivate Peace of Mind Through Spiritual Practice by Darren Cockburn (Findhorn, out now), who proposes immersion in nature as part of meditation practice, providing exercises and instructions.
Relationships are seen in Buddhist terms in Wisdom’s Relational Mindfulness (out now). Author Deborah Eden Tull shows how applying the Buddhist principle of the interconnectedness of all beings can strengthen relationships and deepen intimacy. Tull teaches through stories, including her own; she spent seven years in a silent Zen Monastery and is now a Zen meditation and mindfulness teacher at UCLA’s Mindfulness Center.
For those who want a brief introduction there is Llewellyn’s Little Book of Meditation by David Pond (out now), which includes a short history of the origins of meditation, descriptions of the different types and how to practice them, and tips on dealing with obstacles to practice. The pocket-size, hardcover guide is the fifth in Llewellyn’s Little Book series and explains ways to meditate with a specific intention. Pond is an astrologist and the author of Western Seeker, Eastern Paths.
Demonstrating how to meditate with a specific intent, The Way of Grace: The Transforming Power of Ego Relaxation by Miranda Macpherson (Sounds True, Nov.) teaches the practice of ego relaxation through meditation, prayer, and reflection, all through the divine feminine lens. Macpherson is a spiritual teacher and founder of OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation in London; she is also the author of Boundless Love. Another example of intentional meditating is described in Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out (Sounds True, June) by Ruth King, who uses mindfulness practices from insight meditation to address the damage and division caused by racism. King is an insight meditation teacher, diversity consultant, and the author of Healing Rage: Women Making Inner Peace Possible.
It seems just about any activity can be a spiritual practice if it is motivated by the desire to seek and foster spiritual growth. The spiritual benefits of enjoying and being inspired by great literature are the subject of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos, Sept.). “Reading well is in itself an act of virtue or excellence, and it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return,” she writes. Her explorations of novels and short stories by such writers as Henry Fielding, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrate how the characters they create succeed or fail at cultivating virtues like justice, courage, faith, and love. A professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.
George Elliot: Illuminated by the Message (Acta, Sept.), introduced and compiled by Drew Middleton, professor of religion at Texas Christian University, is the latest volume in Acta’s Literary Portals to Prayer series, which has also published works by Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, and Edith Wharton, accompanied by commentary from authors and scholars. “We ask each compiler to pick a literary giant whose work he or she knows very well and then find 50 ‘portals to prayer’ in that author’s writing,” says Acta publisher Greg Pierce. Acta pairs each work with a passage from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition Bible (also published by Acta) to create two-page “prayer starters” that Pierce says illuminate the original author’s writing. He notes that the Catholic catechism defines prayer as “lifting up minds and hearts to God,” which is what he hopes the books will achieve. “We designed this series especially for young adult spiritual seekers who might be looking outside traditional religious practices for inspiration.”
Novelist, poet, critic, lay theologian, and bestselling author of the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis is beloved not only by readers of literature, but also by Christians who find spiritual inspiration and hope in his works. C. S. Lewis’ Little Book of Wisdom: Meditations on Faith, Life, Love, and Literature (Hampton Roads, Sept.), compiled by Andrea Kirk Assaf and Kelly Anne Leahy, presents in a concise volume Lewis’s thoughts on love, faith, ethics, morality, myth, and literature.
Can you get spiritual in the kitchen? Yes, writes Edward Espe Brown in No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice (Sounds True, out now). True to the title, the book does not contain recipes; rather, it distills Brown’s Zen philosophy of cooking. Brown is the author of the seminal Tassajara cookbook series, which introduced many Americans to vegetarian eating in the 1970s. The first head cook at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California’s Carmel Valley, Brown helped found the pioneering Greens Restaurant in San Francisco and was the subject of the 2007 film How to Cook Your Life.
Maybe the best advice for those who want to weave spirituality into their lives—whether meditation, prayer, or anything else—is to Just Begin (Church, Oct.). In this work, subtitled Sourcebook of Spiritual Practices, religious studies professor Dann E. Wigner introduces 40 different practices from Eastern and Western traditions—from mindfulness to music, yoga to the Lord’s Prayer. There are plenty of choices, if we can only begin.