It's one thing to follow the breadcrumb trail out of pure curiosity. It's another to look for The Meaning of Life. Gratuitous capitalization, I know, is a way to mask sincerity with apparent cuteness, the sort of post-modern affected emotional distance perfected by David Letterman. But the meaning of life, to drop the capitalized pose, is after all a trail worth following.
I've always been more attuned to spiritual friends than to religious institutions. More than 20 years ago, friend Jim Shanley gave me a copy of a book called Joshua, subtitled A Parable for Today. It's by Joseph F. Girzone, who is not identified as a Catholic priest on the cover itself although I am told he is one.
A modern parable it is, a modern telling of the return of Christ. No burning bushes nor thunder and lightning, but simply a quiet, humble man who appears in a smallish town and... I'll leave you to read it yourself if you like. Just to say that the author's plainspoken style and the lack of sturm und drang grabbed me more and better than any amount of fist-shaking or Bible-thumping.
Fast-forward to the recent present. I had never forgotten the powerful impression this book made, but somehow never got around to re-reading it. Some time in the past five years, after what I think of as my intellectual rebirth, I finally read it again and was delighted to see it had lost none of its appeal. Just last week I got from the library two other books by Girzone, and plan to read them as soon as I finish a couple of other things.
A couple of years ago, another long-time friend, Charleen Crean, lent me a short but wonderful book that turned out to be another modern parable. In it, a successful man of business receives a mysterious invitation to dinner. Even though he suspects a trick played by friends, he pursues it only to find himself seated at a nice restaurant opposite Jesus Christ, dressed in a business suit and very much a modern man of the world. I want to re-read this as well and will have to get with Charleen to remember the title. I seem to recall that like Girzone, this author also wrote sequels, so I should be busy for a while.
But wait, there's more! (The return of cuteness, as the sincerity gets to be a bit much after a while.) A third friend, Brian Douglas, has introduced me to a world of ideas about the ways we worship together, and what has been happening to traditional churches. In our conversation he mentioned a book called Kicking Habits, and I asked to borrow it. Unlike my usual pattern of plowing through books helter-skelter, I'm reading this one a page or two at a time and really absorbing what is there.
Author Thomas Bandy holds a post with UCC Canada and was formerly a Methodist clergy in Illinois. He compares the way traditional churches are bogged down in committees, endless talk and constant meetings to the way addicts persist in destructive behavior even while they know it's not working. This book is letting me take what I've learned about the relationship of recovery meetings to the groups that coalesce around them, and see an analogy with religions and congregations.
I'm not sure where this branching of the breadcrumb trail will lead, but recently I found myself attending Sunday worship for the first time in several years. It was serendipitious, meeting a new friend and being open to his no-strings offer to tell me about his church. Thanks to him I met Pastor Renwick Bell, who seems to be a person I was ready to meet at this point in my life. Your imagination may lead you to picture him one way or the other, but you might be very surprised at the reality. Suffice to say that he and his congregation appear to be right for me right now.
I have an opportunity to use my music in ministry, not as a paid professional (which I did for many years as an organist and choir director) but as an individual. This is consistent with what I'm reading in Kicking Habits and with the spirit of the modern parables. I'll never get preachy, and I may not mention this topic again, but I'm glad to find that my spiritual life is growing alongside my renewed intellect.
Bonus breadcrumb: The Mitford books by Jan Karon. Episcopal priest Father Tim finds love and fulfillment in the small town of Mitford, unsurprisingly a lot like Karon's beloved hometown of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Charleen introduced me to them on a visit to her home, surprised I had not even heard of them. I've read all of them two or three times and recommend them readily. She writes entertainingly, her characters are true to life, it's wholesome but never preachy. These are the kind of books that would make appropriate gifts for anyone from a hardboiled prison inmate to your white-haired granny. By coincidence, my friend Charleen's husband John is an Episcopal priest remarkably similar to Father Tim. John, you can expect an email alerting you to this post and to my renewed interest in spirituality, so look out!