Spirituality Workbook: A Guide for Explorers, Pilgrims and Seekers (SPCK) by David Runcorn
Fulcrum Review by Philip Seddon
"Eat this book!" was the instruction given to Ezekiel by God, and is the proper imperative to attach to this latest treasure by David Runcorn, the author of several books, including Space for God, Touch Wood and Rumours of Life. This is an 'extraordinarily ordinary' book: not flashy, showy or clever, but rooted, careful, gentle, and - to adapt the title of another recent book on Anglican spirituality - passionately balanced. Cf p22: 'A great deal of contemporary spirituality is driven by a terror of the ordinary and so is marked by a compulsive search for "excitement"'. One of those rare mainstream quality books that makes it to the shelves of Waterstones, the concluding section of each chapter - 'For thought, prayer and activity' - has questions that really are questions that deserve attention, time and prayer. 'Tears' rightly surface throughout a text on which also sparkle luminous shards of stained-glass wisdom.
The cunning thing about the title is that it does not say 'Christian spirituality', although it patently is Christian, but it is firmly located in the present, where 'sexuality, sensuality and spirituality are mixed up on the same shelves', and run the danger of becoming 'spirituality for the curious affluent' (p1). It taps into the current craze and void of spirituality expressed in the thousands of e-mails sent to Worth Abbey, following the television series The Monastery, which has also produced its own book Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life. It is post-modern in that (p3) interestingly 'you can chose your own route through this book'; but it also confronts head-on the current dangerous flirtation of the church with the world in kow-towing to management-speak and re-organisation, to discussions about deck-chairs on the Titanic, to success and excess, panic about growth, etc and, in so doing , suppressing the real needs of the church for God (!) in unconscious collusion with the world's agenda.
But Runcorn's focus is the battleground of the person-in-Christ: waiting and wrestling in peace. It is fascinating that the first chapter after the Introduction is on Desert Spirituality. It is as if that is the richest tradition for confronting (and learning) real and Christian poverty; we are reminded that the desert tradition was born at the time when the church was becoming successful, tempted by luxury and making its way in the Constantinian world.
The main body of the book is divided into five parts: insights from Christian history and tradition; spiritual life in community; identity, personhood and spirituality; ways and understandings of prayer; and spirituality in the real world. Following Desert spirituality, the first part looks sympathetically at the Anglican, Orthodox and Pentecostal spiritualities - and, incidentally, it is a pleasure to pick up a real respect for these very different histories, avoiding the all-too-common loaded comparisons and profit-and-loss accounts. The chapter on Pentecostal spirituality reminds us that 'We have become over-serious, over-adult', picks up Jean-Jacques Suurmond's nice Word and Spirit at Play of 1994, and notes how the Pentecostal events in 1906 (centenary last year - did anyone notice?) replicated the original Pentecost in terms of powerful prophetic social and racial integration more than half a century before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Section two begins by movingly juxtaposing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier, insisting that real community is a costly requirement as well as a wonderful witness in a fragmented society. The next chapter, exploring a rule of life, and introducing St Benedict and Stephen Covey, pointedly raises common issues of careless personal living and corporate exhaustion (pp64-66). A chapter on the sacrament of Communion is delicately phrased, exposes the frequent disjunction between the spiritual life and Holy Communion in many Christian's lives, and supremely highlights the 'difference between relevance and resonance' (p70).
Section three - the fulcrum of the book - has four chapters on personal identity, which, far from suggesting any false concerns with self-obsessiveness, are well-focussed. Page 90 admits that 'our lives are increasingly lived at a distance from our true selves', and p92 offers a beautiful contrast-quotation from Rowan Williams on the way in which 'our deepest integrity and joy [is] kept from our greedy eyes by being drowned in [God's] glory'. A chapter on embodiment is followed by two - on sexuality and spirituality, and on the changing faces of the spiritual journey - which are vibrant, satisfying, fresh, suggestive and integrative in quite different ways. All is written with care and love, and with very moving personal examples from the author's life, without any sense of us improperly barging into his life. It is a relief to feel far removed from all the machinery and machinations of management manipulation; no wonder that in these chapters the question and reflection material at the end of the chapters is very fine.
The next major section on prayer (chapters 14-18), like much else in this book, is peppered with bon mots, nuggets of gold-dust ('our "goodness" may be a greater problem than our sin' - p128), the wisdom of a praying heart, sensitively juxtaposed examples (eg Rees Howells and Staretz Silouan), and one of the most understated five-sentence expositions of speaking in tongues that I can recall. The grateful observer, the committed believer and the questing interrogator are all here. And in turn, one can ask questions - eg What does reverence mean (p146)? What does devotional intelligence look like? (p153).
But it is in the final five chapters ('spirituality in a real world') that a certain extra-fine sharpness and conviction seem to burn through. Creation ('shot through with wasteful flourishes of beauty', p163) and transition ('the inner…adjustments I must make', p169) are both given place and significance; and the problems of praying for peace are well sketched. But the clearest and most passionate pages of the whole book - and those perhaps nearest the author's heart - are those on 'contemplating the world' (chapter 22, and especially pp184-5, drawing in Merton, Leech and Rolheiser). These are as sharp a summary as I have read on the gift of acute, critical, confrontational, compassionate (in-)sight, in which the darkness of faith may be 'a tough but merciful detoxification of our own promiscuous senses' (p186). The final coda of chapter 23 does not quite match up to the fiery bush of the previous one, and, though it takes the intriguing theme of 'being spies of God', the books simply stops in full flight, leaving both a sense of wanting more, and wondering why we have suddenly stopped.
Part of the answer, of course, is that these were original lectures given at Trinity College, Bristol. More likely, though, the author wanted to offer a place and set a pace where we will neither be satisfied with an ending here, nor feel that we have now got everything tidied up. Perhaps, having reached the final chapter, we could now read the book backwards (a serious idea!)? In any case, it would be an excellent idea for Holy Week to buy and eat this book.
The Revd Philip Seddon is Director of Ministry at the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme, Salisbury
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum