Church of Our Saviour

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COS Reads: Summer Reading

Guest columnist this month for COS Reads is Joy Ackerman, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England, who specializes in spirit and place. Her dissertation, about a place near and dear to many of us, was Walden: A Sacred Geography. Following are a few of her suggestions for summer reading.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Life in a small house set in a place and time apart, and rambles in the outdoors are the fabric for the observations and reflections that are threaded throughout. I’m not sure there is a ‘Tinker Creek’ – but as I recall her place descriptions, I think of a wooded and well-watered eastern landscape, perhaps more mid-Atlantic than New England, but not unfamiliar in its plants, animals and topography to a ‘Yankee.’

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge. Williams is a southwestern writer, native to Utah, and interleaves environmental change with personal challenge – the rising of Great Salt Lake, her mother’s breast cancer, and the nuclear history of the region. Her personal grappling with Mormonism, feminism and family is movingly described in the ‘The Clan of One-Breasted Women.’

Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early. I gave this book of poetry to my daughter’s high school posse when they graduated, hoping (if they ever read it!) to keep them in mind of their childhoods in the outdoors. They are all graduating from college this year. This volume of my favorite poet’s work includes a number of poems that speak to her life and surroundings on Cape Cod, as well as to her questions, revelations and struggles with God and with the church. For those who are already Oliver readers, Thomas Mann has written about her poetry in God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the Other Book of God.

Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer. A novel, and one of my favorites. I’ve read it twice, listened to it on CD (lovely, listenable recording), and even used it as a classroom text; maybe I’ll read it again this summer. The setting is the forested hills and farmed valleys of Kentucky. There are several main characters I think of as archetypes of human relationship to the natural world. The story alternates point-of-view, and at first you may feel distracted by putting down and picking up the threads of each story. Part of coming into a place is learning how all the stories fit together.

bell hooks, Belonging. I’m a bit hesitant to recommend this, because I am still reading it; I’m using it in my Ecological Thought class this summer. Belonging is a series of somewhat autobiographical essays about coming home to rural Kentucky after decades away–away from this geographic place, and away from hooks’ childhood social status as a poor black child in a rural and racist environment. It’s not well edited, and reads a bit like transcripts of talks she has given. ‘Spirit’ in this book includes both hooks’ references to the role of religion in her family and upbringing, an evangelical faith which seemed as out of place as her color, accent and origins when she went off to college at Stanford and throughout much of her academic career; as well as the spirit of challenge in hooks’ explicit confrontation of the ‘isms’ and ‘archies’ that are used to oppress people and the earth.

Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love: Time, Space, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. If Visser considers Sant’Agnese fuori la Mura, a 14th-century church outside Rome, as ‘ordinary’ one wonders what she finds extraordinary. For those who, like me, haven’t traveled in Europe, the place seems exotic! For those of you who are traveling, Visser’s book is guide to ‘deep travel—using a focus on one place to explore the universal themes listed in the book’s title. Reading this lovely book is like walking into this church, and into the past, as Visser explores its history and architecture in counterpoint with the symbolism and theology of the structure. This isn’t a book to rush through. Save it for a hot, humid day when the thought of leaving a crowded, dusty street for a cool, stone stairway that leads you down through centuries to a small chapel where you can wander with this talented guide at your leisure, and take the discoveries at your own pace.

Gunilla Norris, Being Home. In the spirit of the ‘stay-cation’, I can recommend this and any other of Norris’ books of meditations for their simplicity and spiritual potency. Taken like vitamins, one a day, you’ll find that a little reading goes a long way. Being Home includes short (1-2 page) meditations on daily activities, from Making the Bed and Sorting Wash, from Opening the Window in the morning to Locking the Door at night, that guide us in recognizing the sacred in the everyday, in the place where we live. I also recommend Norris’ other books: Being Bread, Invitation to Silence, and Simple Ways Toward the Sacred.

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