Poet Judith Valente is nationally known as a journalist with the “PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” series, reporting on the impact of religion in American life. You may also have heard her voice on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio.
But, in her voice as a poet, she travels widely to spread a greater awareness of the transformative power of poetry. Among the many groups that she and her husband, poet Charles Reynard, have worked with are incarcerated young people. It’s clear that she and her husband truly believe in the spiritual significance of poetry and other literary arts.
TO READ MORE ABOUT THEIR WORK — and their book, “Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul” — Click Here and you’ll jump back to our extended conversation with them. OR, to jump directly to information on their book, CLICK ON the cover of their book (above) and you’ll jump to our bookstore, where you can read more about the book and buy a copy, if you wish.
TODAY — Judith is sharing her own list of “10 Books That Changed My Life.”
COME BACK THROUGHOUT THE WEEK for more on spirituality and poetry — including Tuesaday’s Quiz and a reflection in prose and poetry, by Judith, that starts Wednesday, called “Building a Monastery in the Heart.”
AND NOW, in answer to our popular question: “What are YOU reading?”
10 BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING
By Viktor E. Frankl
A Catholic sister first gave me this book when I was in high school. I have re-read it many times since, at various stages of my life. It is the true story of Frankl’s time in a concentration camp during World War II and how he learned to find something in each day to fuel his hope of surviving, whether it was merely seeing the light of a someone’s home in the distance, or small acts of compassion, which overpowered in his mind the immensity of cruelty he witnessed day to day.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
By W. Somerset Maugham
Main character Larry Darrell’s struggle remains as relevant today as it was after the First World War, the time-frame of the novel: how to eschew the siren call for material goods and success as the world defines this, and live a life of meaning. Darell’s search brought him first to the Paris of the 1920s and is one of the main reasons I decided to take my junior year in college abroad in Paris. Darrell also studies with Eastern monks who guide him to a life of the spirit, sparking my own lifelong interest in the intersection between Eastern and Christian mysticism.
THE SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN
By Thomas Merton
This is Merton’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Catholicism as a young man, and his decision to enter a Trappist contemplative order of monks. I first read the book when I was a student at the Sorbonne during my junior year abroad in Paris. The book has some flaws. It is full of idealized sentiment about life in the monastery, before Merton begins to chafe under arbitrary superiors and the demands of a vast readership clamoring for his time and opinions. (A good companion to this book are his collected letters, which offer an authentic account of his personal and spiritual struggles). But the autobiography had a profound impact on me in the sense that here was a person courageous enough to turn his back on most everything upon which the world sets a value, at an unusually young age.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
By Graham Greene
The one class I best remember from college was a course, taught by a Jesuit, titled, “Graham Greene: A Writer Looks At Theology.” We read most of the works that limned Greene’s familiar spiritual themes (“Brighton Rock,” The End of the Affair,” “The Quiet American,” “The Power and the Glory,” among them).
“The Heart of the Matter” has always stood out in my memory. Most of Greene’s heroes and heroines are rather messed-up people. “Sinners” in the eyes of some, yet they end up being the ones who show genuine passion and compassion. Like the whiskey priest in “The Power and the Glory,” the main character of “The Heart of the Matter” — a police chief named Scobie — is a flawed man in an unhappy marriage and extramarital relationship. He predicts his downfall will one day be his penchant for “too much pity.” But that’s also what makes him an authentic man. His flaws become a source of his truth.
ELIZABETH BISHOP: THE COMPLETE POEMS
By Elizabeth Bishop
Picking up this book in 1988 prompted me to begin writing poetry again, and eventually to leave daily newspaper journalism in mid-career to earn a degree in creative writing. Bishop’s body of work is relatively small compared to other modern American poets. And, she is certainly less well-known that many of her contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. But she is revered by other poets.
You only have to read just one of her perfectly crafted poems to understand why. Bishop was known to work on a single poem as long as 10 years. That is why one can read some of her works, like “The Moose” and “In the Waiting Room” and not find a single discordant note or word that seems out of place. Her villanelle, “One Art,” is arguably the best, most powerful poem ever written about loss.
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS: Volume One
By Mary Oliver
I feel a lot better about the world knowing that someone like Mary Oliver is in it. Olver is the master of finding the sacred in the ordinary. Her poems almost always begin in the natural world, but end up on a spiritual plane. In that sense, they are both body and soul.
The poems are guides for living, which is not to say they are facile or preachy. Not at all. Without proselytizing, they gently take our hand. They ask us to pay attention to the marvels all around us.
Asked how she writes a poem, Oliver once answered, “I watch. Then I get out of the way.” This collection contains some of her most enduring works, such as “The Journey” (“One day you knew what you had to do, and began”); “Wild Geese” (“All you have to do is let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”); and “When Death Comes” (“I was the bride married to astonishment”). These are poems to read, to savor, to cherish.
By Lisel Mueller
Lisel Mueller is an unassuming, soft-spoken woman who quietly worked at her poetry in the Chicago ex-urbs most of her career before winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Her field of study was fable and myth, and she somehow manages to draw out essential truth, as myth and fable often do, from the ordinariness of life, whether it’s the day’s news, a road trip with her daughters or listening to the music of Charlie Parker.
I read this book the first time straight through on an airplane ride from Chicago to the West Coast. And I have felt compelled to read it straight through several times since. Once you begin with a Mueller poem, you don’t want to let yourself stop.
The title poem, “Alive Together,” is a celebration of the dumb luck and chance that so often precede the best events in life. “Speaking of marvels, I am alive together with you,” she says at the beginning of the poem, “when I might have been alive with anyone under the sun.” And, in a sense, all of Mueller’s poems are somehow about what a marvel it is that we ever come to be alive.
ESSENTIAL MONASTIC WISDOM:
WRITINGS ON THE CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
By Hugh Feiss
How do we live a life of contemplation, and still get up and go to work every morning, raise a family, go grocery shopping, take the car into the garage?
Feiss has spent his life as a Benedictine monk. He explains simply and lucidly how we can live mindfully day to day in the world. In other words, how those of us who don’t or can’t live in a monastery, can build a monastery of the heart. Feiss focuses on the fundamental monastic values: humility, stability, hospitality, simplicity, work and prayer, among them.
He describes his own experience of those values. Then he lets us hear about them from spiritual teachers throughout the ages, from the desert monks and religious women of the fourth and fifth centuries, to St. Benedict, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, on up to to 20th century contemplatives such as Esther de Waal, Thomas Merton and Sister Joan Chittister. I literally could not put this book down. It was like reading a great spiritual mystery thriller.
WISDOM DISTILLED FROM THE DAILY:
LIVING THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT TODAY
By Joan Chittister, OSB
Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister who possesses not only the deep clarity of a monastic, but an ability to write simply, clearly and entertainingly about how monastic life is lived. She has written many books on this theme, all with the intent of showing that monastic values are for all people in all ages.
Chittister’s premise is that one can live contemplatively in the heart of a bustling city just as well as in the confines of a quiet priory. In this book, she explores various passages from The Rule of St. Benedict, the classic script for living a monastic life. She shows an uncanny ability to relate this 6th-century treatise to our information and technology driven world.
The reason she can do this is that The Rule speaks to somethng very fundamental in our nature: the longing for stability, the need to find purpose through work and community, the desire for peace, for balance.
People would be mistaken to think of The Rule as merely that, a set of regulations or precepts. Rather it is a process, a roadmap for helping us become fully ourselves so that we can live an abundant life. Chittister may use slightly different terms than Feiss does in his book Essential Monastic Wisdom. But both are saying essentially the same things. The building blocks to an abundant life arise from work, prayer, reading, listening, acting humbly and with others in mind. The end result is true community, conversion, wholeness and peace.
JESUS AND BUDDHA AS BROTHERS
By Thich Nhat Hanh
When it comes to contemplation and living the monastic life, both Buddhism and Christianity share many similarities. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and poet, explores these commonalities in many books, but this one is a quiet, easy-to-read summary of his insights in the matter.
The book is perhaps easier to read than some of his others because it is largely a compilation of talks he has given to groups of pilgrims at his retreat house in Paris. So, while reading it, one has a sense of hearing the voice of this very gentle, learned man. Hanh draws interesting comparisons between the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Christianity and the discipline of mindfulness in Buddhism.
The Christian monastic father, St. Benedict of Nursia, for instance, asks us to treat kitchen utensils as if they were the vessels of the altar. Hahn urges us to eat slowly and mindfully. Then, he says, even a simple bit of toast and warm milk can seem like a sumptuous meal.
Hanh also delves into his other familiar themes: how to cope with our anger, how fear of the other leads to conflict, and how we can make compassion a daily spiritual practice.
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