Book Review by John Gillman
Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm. By Robert Wicks. Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2011, Hardcover, 214 pp. $22.95.
As in some of his previous books, Robert Wicks offers in “Streams of Contentment” reflections on how to reclaim, or claim for the first time, an inner sense of clarity, simplicity and peace. Throughout he draws upon boyhood memories of summer days spent on a family farm in the Catskill Mountains. His reflections transported this reviewer back to similar childhood experiences on my grandparents’ farm in the Midwest, watching with excitement hay wagons coming in from the fields, fishing in clear creek waters flowing through a secluded woods, and playing around fragrant lilac bushes. Looking back after a life of notable accomplishments, Mr. Wicks finds in his early memories several seeds of contentment that he rediscovers for his later life and now proposes for his readers.
The book is structured in two parts, the first containing 15 brief chapters on lessons learned from his own life, followed by a 30-day retreat “in the country” highlighting essential themes for reflection, taking just five minutes each. The idea of a 30-day retreat is influenced perhaps by the time Mr. Wicks spent with the Jesuits, who are known for the Ignatian exercises of the same length. It was unclear to me, however, whether Mr. Wicks intended there to be a progressive movement of the spirit through the 30 days, as there is for the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.
The book’s overarching theme is to embrace the present moment with a sense of gratitude, humility and contentment. The author names several obstacles to this everyday spirituality and offers helpful strategies to deal with them. He also draws upon the wisdom of the great traditions, specifically identifying teachings from the Buddhist tradition, the desert
Abbas and Ammas (fathers and mothers), and several contemporary guides such as Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.
I found it very curious that for being a Roman Catholic the author does not explicitly claim his own religious identity nor does he refer to Jesus, although he does report one of his teachings, namely “where your treasure is, your heart is, too,” which Mr. Wicks introduces with the bland expression: “as the saying goes” (no reference to its occurrence in Mt 6:21/Lk 12:34). Similarly, the theme of
kenosis (from the Greek meaning “emptiness”), prominent in Christian theology (see Phil 2:7), is simply identified as being from “the classic spiritual wisdom literature” (p. 179). Perhaps Mr. Wicks is overreacting to a few critics who found a previous book, “Prayerfulness,” as being too Christian/Catholic. The closest he comes to naming the theistic basis of his own spirituality comes in the form of what he calls his philosophy of life: “Be clear and be not afraid for you are loved by God” (p. 184).
Notwithstanding the above omissions, I strongly recommend “Streams of Contentment” for those in the initial stages of the spiritual journey as well as for those who desire to get back on track or who need a refresher course. Many of the five-minute-a-day retreat reflections would be ideal to use for gatherings of multi-faith team members. The author’s gift for story telling, his engaging style and his ability to let his life speak (a theme from Parker Palmer) make this an excellent resource.
John Gillman is an NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.