By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
The front cover of Tom Stella’s latest book, CPR for the Soul, shows a woman rising among kite-like origami shapes, including graceful peace cranes—until gravity can no longer hold her feet to the grass. As summer breezes begin to blow across North America, we all share that desire to step into the sunshine and let our spirits soar.
That’s the idea animating this volume of 130 short meditations. If you enjoy reading one a day, that’s enough for the entire summer.
Tom is a chaplain and that shows in his broad hospitality toward readers. We are welcomed into these pages whatever our spiritual background might be. As Tom puts it in his opening section: “If there is a common thread running through these writings, it is that we are one with something vast. This ‘something’ is not a thing or a person, but the spiritual source and force at the heart of life. Whether we call it God, Spirit, Higher Power, or any similar designation, we are its embodiment, as in all creation. When we live attuned to and in harmony with this infinite, intimate, ultimate reality, our lives individually and collectively can become rich beyond imagining.”
Like the patterns of the colorful origami dancing through the air on the cover of Tom’s book, there is a circular nature to spiritual connections. Consider the following: If you’re just meeting Tom in this week’s cover story, then we also can recommend our earlier cover story featuring his book, Finding God Beyond Religion. That book has a foreword by Marianne Borg, who we just featured in a cover story about the new book focused on the teachings of her husband, Marcus Borg. And these spiritual connections continue to circle.
Tom is a former Catholic priest whose vocation is spiritual development. He’s a chaplain for Centura Health in Denver. He’s also a spiritual director, retreat facilitator and author. You can read more about his other work, including retreats and workshops, at his website.
That leads us to one more valuable reason to get a copy of Tom’s book. As a writer, he’s a talented and disciplined professional. Over the past decade, we’ve learned that many readers of our online magazine are writers themselves. Our online magazine is particularly popular among caring professionals, including preachers, teachers, small-group leaders, caregivers and chaplains. Like Tom, many of our readers also have a custom of writing their own weekly columns.
So, here’s the point: Tom wrote most of the 130 short columns in this book as inspirational emails that he sends to the thousands of men and women who work for the Centura system. If you’re looking for a great model to help you fine tune your own writing—get a copy of Tom’s book today and see how a professional does this, month after month after month.
“I always begin with an opening quote that has grabbed me—and I hope will grab my readers,” Tom said in an interview about his new book. “Then, I write my commentary from that. I always keep it fairly short. Each one is about a page and a half in this book. My calling in spiritual development is to challenge folks to think in new ways, however they define their spiritual life at the moment. So, even though Centura is a Catholic and Adventist healthcare system, I draw on sources from the East and the West, from writers we would immediately think of as ‘religious’ and from some we might consider ‘non-religious.’ Then, I listen to my readers. A lot of the positive feedback I get from my readers focuses on two things: They like it that I draw from many different traditions—and I keep it brief.”
In that description from Tom, dear readers—you’ve got a master class in this kind of regular inspirational writing:
- Make sure it will grab people.
- Get to the point and keep it short.
- Cast a wide net to connect with our increasingly diverse readership today.
- Then, listen to your readers about what they like.
EXAMINING ‘OUR CLAIMS, OUR HOPES’
Pulling out my copy of Tom’s earlier book and thumbing through the foreword written by Marianne Borg—I discovered that a passage Marianne wrote in 2013 could easily serve as an introduction to Tom’s new book, today. Marianne wrote:
“The conditions and state of our current religious and cultural world demand that we reexamine our claims, our hopes, our nature, our responsibilities as human beings. It is time for a new aggiornamento, a ‘bringing up to date’ for the church and for seekers of God. Tom’s book is such an aggiornamento. He explores prayer, belief, Jesus, the Bible, morality, the problem of evil, and the mission of the church with tenderness of heart, keen intellect, care, clarity and disarming simplicity. In so doing, he gives us permission to examine afresh our own encounters with conventional faith, litmus statements of belief, and the norms they espouse.”
CPR for the Soul certainly has a different format and overall focus than the earlier volume. But Tom’s perspective continues to come through loud and clear, just as Marianne described it five years ago.
The first of the 13 sections in Tom’s new book is called Against the Grain and includes 10 columns that address “conventional wisdom” head on. Each individual meditation is a gem—in fact, one story actually involves a legendary gem. Starting the book in this way, Tom wants to shake us up, to help us question popular assumptions about spirituality.
“I’m writing for people who I presume are on the go—skimming the surface of life because they are so busy with important things personally and professionally,” Tom said in our interview. “When we get caught up in that approach to life, we tend to avoid going deeper. So, my first challenge is to provide some reflections that give people pause. I want people to stop for a moment. I want them to reflect on a deeper level. I want them to sit for a moment with the meditation they’ve just read.”
In the book’s second section, readers encounter the depth of Tom’s approach to chaplaincy. Like other spiritual writers whose work stands the test of time—Frederick Buechner comes to mind—Tom knows that his primary job is not serving up a stream of cheery chicken soup for the soul. Instead, he is extending a hand to us in the midst of the crises and tragedies and challenges that we encounter every day.
Here’s how he introduces this section: “There is much in life that is difficult. Illness, loss, betrayal, failure and the like can break our hearts and make getting through the day feel like an insurmountable task. … What can help us not only survive but thrive in the face of hurtful events is to recognize them as ‘dark gifts,’ blessings in disguise.”
This is very tricky territory. One of the thorniest religious questions is: Why do bad things happen to good people? In response, there has always been a lot of bad theology masquerading as spiritual solace. Rest assured: Tom is not trying to sell us the soft soap that God has a purpose for every tragedy. He is not trying to sell us some kind of positive-thinking patent medicine. Drawing on his Catholic tradition, he’s simply acknowledging, right away, that life usually involves as much pain and disappointment as joy and success.
“I get a lot of positive response from readers to these reflections on what I call ‘Dark Gifts,’ ” Tom said in our interview. “That makes sense. You can’t get too far down life’s road without running into tough stuff. Finding a helpful reflection on the tough stuff we’re going through can change our whole perspective.”
CALLED TO MOVE OUTSIDE OURSELVES
The overarching theme of Tom’s book is reassurance that wherever we find ourselves—at the height of success or in the midst of tragedy—our lives have sacred value. We can choose to ignore the spiritual opportunities we find each day for renewal and connection with other people—or we can continue to skim through our busy schedules until something stops us dead in our tracks.
Tom reminds us in all 130 of these columns that, if we open ourselves to reflection each day, we are likely to surprise ourselves.
In our interview, he put it this way: “Life is where we stumble upon the Divine. I’m convinced of that truth and want to offer that to people.”
There are so many temptations away from those kinds of encounters, Tom says. “There’s spiritualism, which is a mindset that undervalues the physical, emotional and material dimensions of life. If we follow that pathway, we are encouraged to turn away and rise above the life around us. That’s not what I’m offering to readers. I want people to enter into the messiness of everyday life. That’s where we can gain real spiritual awareness and our lives can become so much richer.”
Even if you already follow a spiritual practice, Tom stresses that one of the most important words in his new book’s title is: “Reviving.”
“That’s such a key word, because we’re talking about a constant cycle throughout our lives,” he said. “We wake up, but we also fall asleep. Sometimes, we’re moving through life on auto-pilot. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to stay spiritually awake 24/7. But it is possible to keep coming back to that consciousness, when we’ve lost it. And that’s what I hope readers find in this book—a reminder that all of us need to keep coming back. We all can use a call to revival.”
Care to read more?
VISIT TOM—Learn more about his ongoing work at his website www.TomStella.org.