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Book review


Soul Making: the Desert Way of Spirituality

By Alan Jones; Harper, San Francisco 1989

“I don't claim to be a mature believer, but I do insist that I want to be one.” writes Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, in this fascinating book on the role of the desert in soul making. As the title and quote suggest this is no ten point plan to greater Christian maturity, but is an exploration of the hard road of the desert of faith. The author claims:

“It seems to be a maxim of the spiritual life that no-one undergoes spiritual or psychological growth and change willingly. We are either dragged into it kicking and screaming, or circumstances force us into the next scene of the human comedy. Ironically the institutional church is often and obstacle to spiritual growth. As we have seen, it has something of an investment in keeping its members in and infantile state.”

He goes on to suggest that ‘probing doubt is the handmaiden of faith' and that  maturity  comes  by  being a small

child, being truly broken and having faced our own death. “The more we refuse to look at our own death the  more we repress and deny new possibilities for living,” says Jones. There are no short cuts. The empty space within us - our own abyss - can become the dwelling place of God. Only the desert provides the  environment for soul making, says Jones.

Beginning with a visit to St Macarius monastery in the Middle East, Jones describes the unequalled power of the desert in soul formation. This book is a mixture of personal journey, thorough theology, the fruits of psychology and many pithy quotes and stories from spiritual leaders in history. Little quotes like “we are all victims of victims”; stories like the vengeful old lady  who  brought  fresh flowers to lay on her husband's grave every day reminding herself as she went ‘oh he so hated flowers', to a fresh look at the writings and thoughts of Freud.

The book deals with what it means to follow Christ; to live our lives not by trying to imitate Jesus life but by living our own destiny with acceptance and to our maximum. It looks at the role of tears and the reality of sin. It looks at Many Christian's obsession with heaven and hell and asks why so many seem so keen on the idea of hell, if not for themselves, at least for others. “Christian orthodoxy”, he says, “requires that I believe in the logical possibility of hell (utter lostness / damnation). It does not require that I believe anyone is there. There is nothing to prevent my hoping that hell is empty.”  

In the final section, the depths of the trinity are explored and the huge place of community and loving others is unpacked. “Soul making can be described as the liberating movement from being individuals to becoming persons. The doctrine of the trinity begins to come alive for us when we can say with all honesty, ‘I cannot be without you, and we cannot be without them (the trinity).”

For those in the difficult places of Christian faith where their faith is  being pulled down and their sense of the way ahead undermine, this exploration of the desert tradition of faith is a very profound guide. I found this a very rich book - one that I  intend reading again soon.       

Alan Jamieson

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