Book Reviews

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 293 pp. paper $11.49

This book is exactly what its title claims – a handbook on the spiritual disciplines. It would serve as a handy reference work for those desiring a quick overview of the spiritual disciplines being promoted by the Spiritual Formation Movement. Two observations can be quickly made. First Calhoun turns almost everything into a discipline, from the traditional disciplines such as lectio divina and contemplative prayer to everyday life including friendship, rest and environmentalism. Secondly, her mentors in the world of disciplines are the Roman Catholic mystics: M. Basil Pennington, Henri Nouwen, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, St. Benedict and Julian of Norwich, and those who have imbibed their teachings: Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Karen Mains and Phyllis Tickle (p. 10). Knowing the source of any Christian teaching is always of value.

Calhoun’s descriptions of most of the disciplines are mild compared to those offered by the original creators and many modern adherents. For example, she describes lectio divina as a form of “devotional reading or hearing of Scripture…aimed more at growing a relationship with God than gathering information about God” (p. 167). This is a far cry from the actual practice of lectio as taught by Foster and Ken Boa. Still the goal is the same, as is true of most of the mystical disciplines – to hear the voice of God. While affirming that the Lord is giving no new revelation today (p. 163), hearing God speak through numerous venues is the end game (see pp. 23, 52, 58, 61, 66, 67, 68, 73, 79, 99, 101, 106, 107, 115, 167, 212, 220, 253). This is the attraction of spiritual disciplines – by their practice we will supposedly hear the voice of God.

Lectio divina and contemplative prayer are the heart and soul of the Spiritual Formation Movement and so it is only right that Calhoun devotes the largest section (of seven) of her book to prayer. She lists fourteen ways to pray, most of which are drawn from the mystical traditions of Catholicism such as breath prayer, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, fixed-hour prayer, labyrinth prayer and prayer of recollection. It is important to note that while the author attempts to support each of these with Scripture she was unable to do so. These practices simply are not drawn from the Bible, but rather from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of medieval Catholic mystics.

As an introduction and reference guide to the spiritual disciplines being chanpioned by spiritual formation leaders, this book has some value. As a guide to spiritual life it is dangerous as it emphasizes many unbiblical and mystical practices that will lead the reader from God rather than to Him.