Autobiographers and pilgrims  

by
24 June 2016

Anne Spalding looks at books on life as a spiritual journey

Not Eden: Spiritual life writing for this world

Heather Walton

SCM Press £16.99

(978-0-334-05379-8)

Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99

 

The Awesome Journey: Life’s pilgrimage

David Adam

SPCK £8.99

(978-0-281-07294-1)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10


NOT EDEN
is written in two parts. The first (three chapters) is a theoretical discussion of autobio­graphical spiritual writing. Walton argues that we can draw on the ancient traditions of Christian writing, such as St Augustine’s Confessions, but that today’s spirit­ual writing should be rooted in the everyday. She learns from contem­porary writers and theorists and she gives a comprehensive bibliography.

The second part (16 shorter chapters) is Walton’s own spiritual autobiography. She takes us through incidents in her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, keeping much of the unknown not understood and unspoken of those years. I feel I got to know her and her friends quite well. I am much less sure that I grasped the author’s spiritual journey.

Some of my difficulty Walton had touched on in Part One, that of finding a language to write of the divine. The additional difficulty I found is that there is no commonly understood background for the “spiritual”. Everyone has grown up as a child, through adolescence, into adulthood, and this familiar experi­ence means that many things do not have to be spelt out to provide a rich picture of a particular experience of growing up.

The same is not true of the “spiritual”. Without reference to the known story of a religious tradition such as Christianity, I did not find enough clues to build a coherent picture of her spirituality.

Also, the biographies we have from the earlier Christian tradition have been handed down because others have learned from them. I wondered what I was learning. Certainly, Walton provides ques­tions for reading groups at the end. But the question she provides that I want to ask back to her is: “Where precisely is the spiritual in this life writing?”

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David Adam, in contrast, con­tinues to write explicitly in the Christian tradition. In The Awesome Journey, he reflects on different aspects of life using a biblical story to give a focus for each chapter. For example, he uses the story of Adam (Genesis 3) to focus on God seeking and calling us, and the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3) to explore the oppor­tunity to find vision in the desert times of life. Like Walton, Adam is clear that the material and the spiritual are inseparable. But Adam uses writing from poets and mystics, including Celtic Christian experi­ence, to express and probe what that might mean for us.

To help readers engage with each theme, every chapter ends with at least one prayer and a “5p exercise”. The 5ps are pause, presence, picture, ponder, and promise. So, in each chapter, there are some thoughts tailored to the chapter’s theme to help us make room for God (pause), affirm God’s presence with us (presence), picture the biblical story (picture), think about what the story is saying to me (ponder), and consider what action needs to be taken as a result (promise).

The themes of this book are not new. They cover experiences such as God-provoked restlessness, meeting strangers, finding God where we are, being exhausted and empty, and building relationships with God and other people. Nevertheless, Adam obviously writes from lived experi­ence as well as from knowledge; so I found The Awesome Journey worth reading to visit, or revisit, these aspects of life’s pilgrimage.

 

Dr Anne Spalding is a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, and lives in Suffolk.

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