My top five books for a ‘soul-full’ life would have to be a mixture of poetry and prose, novels and short stories – some books which are overtly theological in their approach and others that aren’t, but in which I have continually found myself tripping over God (in a good way!).
One would certainly be Mitch Albom’s extraordinary The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Hyperion Books, 2003). The story of Eddie, an 85-year-old maintenance engineer in a seaside amusement park, it opens with his heroic act of throwing himself towards a free-falling rollercoaster cart to which a small girl is clinging. It is only much later that we discover whether or not the girl survived and in the meantime we accompany Eddie on his journey through heaven, as he meets people who help him to interpret his own life in new and sometimes startling ways. Of course Eddie’s journey to a certain extent becomes ours, as we search our own souls in response to Eddie’s exploration of meaning and love.
Kate Clanchy’s Newborn (Picador, 2005) is a collection of poetry reflecting on how new parenthood opens our eyes to the world in a different way. The poems are variously poignant, marvelling, wistful and charged with a deep, exquisite joy. In the shock and wonder of early motherhood my soul was shaped by the clarity of Clanchy’s thought and the resonances that I found in many of the poems.
More recently, Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011 and SPCK, forthcoming) has pressed me to delve deep into my soul as I continue my internal ‘mid-life conversation’. Rohr explores the idea that our lives are a game of two halves, the first half all about building, establishing and constructing the container that will hold who we are, and the second in which we answer the questions ‘For what have I been preparing? What do I really want to do now?’ For mid-lifers, this is a deeply energising and affirming book, setting us up to live the second half deeply and well!
Short stories can offer focused and intense shafts of light, making unexpected connections with our soul’s questions and longings in just a few pages. Two collections by Helen Simpson, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (Jonathan Cape, 2000) and Constitutional (London, Jonathan Cape, 2005), have made me think and re-think the nature of love, death, pregnancy, grief, healing and memory.
RM Lamming’s As in Eden (Faber and Faber, 2005) retells a series of biblical stories from the perspective of the female characters involved: Eve, Hagar, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Martha, Claudia Procula and others. Profound emotional insight and beautiful prose characterise this collection, which through an overarching sweep of biblical history offers many profound, intimate and personal insights. A book into which I found myself irresistibly drawn, fascinated by what I could learn from Lamming and the women whose stories she unfolds.
Rosemary Lain-Priestley is Dean of Women’s Ministry in Central London. Her most recent SPCK title is Does my Soul Look Big in This?