Michael PLEKON.  The World as Sacrament: An Ecumenical Path toward a World Spirituality. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017.  Pp. xviii + 252. $24.95.  ISBN 978-0-8146-4556-7.  Reviewed by John T. FORD, The Catholic University of America, Washington DC 20064.


Although recent surveys indicate that many Americans self-identify as “nones”—people who are not formally affiliated with any religious institution—many such people seem to be searching for spiritual meaning for their own lives—albeit outside organized religion.  Such “searchers”—as well as regular readers of spirituality-publications—should find this book of interest, even fascination: modern spiritual writers who depict the world as a sacrament—an external sign of pervasive spiritual reality—a place where people can find God in the ordinary context of their everyday lives.

This book’s twelve chapters—ranging from 14 to 20 pages in length—are like Facebook entries: each accompanied by a black-and-white photo along with a short biographical vignette, select quotations and succinct summaries of the spiritual insights of a dozen different spiritual authors.  The selection of authors is “ecumenical” including both Eastern and Western Christians: six women: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Maria Skobtsova, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Brown Taylor, Joan Chittister, Kathleen Norris—and six men: Alexander Men, Nicholas Afanasiev, Lev Gillet, Paul Evdokimov, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr.   In addition, although not accorded a separate chapter, Dorothy Day appears on occasion.  This book’s introduction sketches the author’s spiritual journey from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Orthodoxy and its epilogue records some lessons that he learned as a Lutheran pastor.

In contrast to those spiritual writings which are highly speculative and theoretical, what is most compelling about the spirituality of these writers is the witness of their lives: Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945), who sheltered Jewish fugitives in Nazi-occupied France, died in Ravensbrück concentration camp, just weeks before the end of World War II; Alexander Men (1935-1990) was brutally murdered in Russia en route to celebrate the divine liturgy.  Less dramatic, but still deeply painful, was the official ostracism that these spiritual writers experienced: Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was sometimes at loggerheads with his Trappist superiors; Benedictine Joan Chittister was targeted by Vatican investigators; the search of Barbara Brown Taylor, a priest of the Episcopal Church, for an authentic way of being Christian incongruously resulted in her Leaving Church—a best seller in 2006.  The pursuit of authentic Christian spirituality often includes a journey to Calvary. 

Christians who want a spirituality that is comfortable, if not cozy, will not find it among these spiritual writers—all of whom had their crosses to carry.  Sometimes their crosses were imposed by powerful people or totalitarian governments; frequently, their crosses came from ecclesiastical authorities within their own religious communities.  Ironically, religious institutions often insist on the observance of regulations that cater to external observance, while obstructing the inner work of the Spirit.  Law and Gospel all too frequently collide.  Readers who want conventional pastoral reassurance should look elsewhere; this book is for those who want to explore the multifold challenges of living as a Christian in the contemporary world. 

Rather than reading this book strait through, perhaps a better approach would be a chapter per day: it is worthwhile spending time getting acquainted with each of these spiritual writers and savoring their spiritual insights, as one might do with newly found friends or those whom one has not seen for a while.  Such an approach is aided by the author’s personal comments and reflections; in effect, readers are invited to add these authors to their roster of spiritual friends.  This book might also be the text for a congregational or collegiate course on spirituality—discussing a different writer at each meeting; for such a project, the author has provided many helpful bibliographical suggestions for further reading in the footnotes.  In sum, this book provides ample food for meditation—both individual and communal—for people searching for God in their everyday experience.