Midwife | Translator | Explorer | Poet |Motorcyclist |Husband | Elder | Listener
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.
I confess at the beginning that I have in my personal library approximately 6500 books. Among them are some of my best friends. I also count among these friends my own books that I lovingly and with not a little birthing pain, brought into the world, either on my own or with co-authors and co-editors.
I remember always loving to read; learning to read was one of my greatest joys growing up. And with reading, I fell in love with words, their various meanings and their unique energies. I think that is why reading energizes me in spirit, body and soul. Reading enhances my ability to cultivate reveries which are often the richest places for insights to gather.
To escape the trauma of an alcoholic father who terrorized us all on the weekends with his binge drinking, during some weeks I would feign being sick so my mother would allow me to stay home. An avid reader herself, and from whom I developed a love of reading, she would go to the local public library in Euclid, Ohio and check out books for herself and me. I would then create in my bed a cave with blankets, pull my plastic radio and the library books in with me, and read by the light of a flashlight, all the time listening to the McGuire sisters, Nat King Cole, and others on the radio in the early 1950s.
A trained introvert who can slip into the persona of an extravert when called on, I love the solitude reading promotes. As a contemplative at an early age, I was drawn to the monastic tradition of the Catholic Church when I was a senior in high school. I have kept that fire alive for sixty years. Books I read believe in me and I in them. My list of ten titles below is each paired with an event in my life. As life preservers, they buoyed me up when I needed ballast to continue. I present them in chronological order as life lines to who and where I am now.
DENNIS PATRICK SLATTERY, Ph.D., has been teaching for fifty-four years, from Special Education in the primary grades, through secondary school, undergraduate and graduate curricula. For the past twenty-eight years he was a professor in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. He is currently Distinguished Professor Emeritus. His fields of interest are the mythopoetic imagination, depth and archetypal psychology, creativity, metaphor, theories of myth, and writing.
He offers writing retreats on Exploring One’s Personal Myth, Creativity, and The Mythology of Belief. He has orchestrated these workshops and presentations throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of thirty-two volumes, seven of which are poetry and one novel co-authored with Charles Asher. https://www.dennispatrickslattery.com
My 10 Best
The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger
I was assigned to read Salinger’s masterpiece while a junior in a Marianist High School in Cleveland, Ohio. It marked a turning point in what I assumed about books generally, especially fiction, which was that they focused on the particulars of the outer world, the events that happened to characters and their responses. This time, Holden Caulfield transported me into my own inner world through his. I was also excited to see the word “f*** used with such casual frequency. I was hooked. But more: Holden’s disgust, his confusion about how to process the world, to see himself as a visible entity within it, echoed my own sense of feeling ashamed, invisible, a non-person who dressed, ate and shuffled through the world daily. I see now in the rear-view mirror, how much his story is a memoir of his spiritual quest to see himself as a person of integrity with accompanying impulses to improve the world even a little, by his actions. It was the first narrative that mirrored my own story by way of analogy.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
by C.G. Jung
A friend at Kent State who lived with his family in an apartment in the same house we rented introduced me to Jung’s memoir, which he wrote in his 83rd. year. I was captured by his intention he describes in the Prologue: “to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories.’” At the time I did not really comprehend what a myth was, much less that I might have a personal myth. Nevertheless, I was hooked and read it with intense interest. This spiritual memoir revealed to me that we live our lives forward, but make sense of them through deep reflection. The key word in my reading was “resonance.” I resonated with his deep interior vision of himself, both in conflict and confluence with the world’s uncertainties. I was drawn to how Jung found in the natural order spiritual solace and nourishment.
Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
When I transferred to Kent State University in the fall of 1966, a good friend who had been instrumental in my enrolling there as a junior in college, gave me his copy of Dostoevsky’s first of five major novels. In the university library I had rented a study carrel for the school year. One afternoon I began to read this gripping story of a young college student, Rodion Raskolnikov, destitute and depressed by his poverty, had decided to murder an old pawn-broker, steal all that she had in chests under her bed, and distribute them to the poor in Petersburg. I sat transfixed in my carrel, ceased attending classes for a week and allowed myself to be transported by this narrative of violence and redemption at the hands of an eighteen-year-old prostitute, Sonia, who sacrifices her body so her family can eat.
When I finished the novel, I walked directly to the Registrar’s office and changed my major from Experimental Psychology to Literature; I saw that there was more psychology on one page of Dostoevsky’s novel than in an entire course on human behavior. My life trajectory found its right path through this violent young man who is opened to a spiritual quest through the unconditional love of Sonia.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
by Thomas Merton
At the end of my first year teaching high school at a Catholic institution in Lorain, Ohio, I asked the school’s chaplain, Bill Snyder, where I could make a formal retreat; I felt my soul was both starved and exhausted. He did not hesitate: Gethsemane Monastery in Trappist, Kentucky. He needn’t say any more. In June I packed up my BMW motorcycle with clothing and books and headed south. I had made reservations beforehand. Once there, I explored the library, perhaps even before my room. There I met Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary for over twenty years. He took me to the small plot where the Benedictine monks were buried, among them, Thomas Merton. He also suggested the title above. That began a love affair with this maverick monk, a poet, social and political activist and bridge-builder between religious faiths.
I found in this book honest interrogations and questions pertaining to one’s faith, my own included. Merton became a mentor on that retreat that has lasted over forty years. I have returned to his insights over the decades to recalibrate my own spiritual compass, with this book as one of my True Norths.
Moby-Dick or The Whale
by Herman Melville
When I was twenty years old, I had just bought my first car, was working as a deputy bailiff in a Municipal Court in Euclid Ohio, and attending a junior college at night. There I met a friend who, as bored as I was with life, sought a change, an adventure that would stimulate his connection to life. We ended up signing on to a German Freighter out of the port of Cleveland, Ohio and shipped out in June, 1965. We sailed to Bremerhaven, Germany, from where we hitch-hiked through countries to Ireland, where we stayed with relatives. When we returned home late that summer and I began working in a steel mill, I was hungry to read any stories dealing with the sea. After devouring many fine fictions I landed on the Mother Ship of sea stories, Melville’s classic adventure of a fractured soul, Ishmael, seeking to escape the land and go to sea (see) the world. Again, I found myself in his life as a whaleman, but also as a writer finding his right topics and using the wonder of writing to rite his way into his deepest recesses. I believe this masterpiece is one of the most spiritual stories I have ever read. Later, I was to write a day-to-day book of passages to meditate on, along with explications that I titled Our Daily Breach: Exploring Your Personal Myth Through Melville’s Moby-Dick. It was my small way of making this at-times frustrating work accessible to a large audience through more manageable daily morsels of the Whale. It taught me on a deeper level how our own personal myth may have been already storied in these classics of literature.
During my graduate work, at the University of Dallas, Homer’s masterpiece was one reading of many in a course on Epic Literature. I entered this ancient Greek world with my hat in one hand and a pen in another. Here I discovered the deeper value of home and homecoming, both spiritual impulses in the soul. I also sensed the agony of being orphaned, forgotten, covered over, as well as the power of story to renew an exhausted and beaten soul. Remembering and then telling one’s story, with its dismemberments, its agonies and its tenacity to survive, all felt like spiritual dimensions we all struggle with. I recalled in reading it what James Hillman said of it, namely, that it is fine to have a copy of the Gideon Bible in drawers of hotel and motel rooms, but what about adding Homer’s Odyssey, since so many people who pass through these rooms are either traveling from or to, home.
I have taught this epic for many years as another form of a spiritual journey; in 2019 I published a day-to-day rendition of this classic entitled From War to Wonder: Recovering Your Personal Myth Through Homer’s Odyssey that many have found useful as they read the original. My conviction grew that our spiritual lives are intimately woven into our mythic lives; they speak to one another in literary classics continually across the ages. Homer’s ancient epic was a major influence on my ability to enlarge my orbit of understanding in nuanced and perduring ways.
The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri
Another classic of literature that my graduate studies opened me to was perhaps the most inclusive poem that described the myth of the Middle Ages in Europe. Dante the pilgrim-poet’s remarkable journey transported me through the three terrains of the soul: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Like Holden Caulfield and Ishmael, narrator of Moby-Dick following him by centuries, Dante the person, pilgrim and poet are of a piece in the intimacy of a first-person narrative.
Once again, I could see those pockets of my own narrative given back to me to reflect on through these three landscapes: the infernal region of violence and self-absorption, then a communal pilgrimage guided by hope in Purgatorio, and finally the connection with the feminine guide, Beatrice, who leads Dante to another feminine force, the Blessed Virgin Mary in Paradiso, who points Dante to the “primal love” that moves the sun and other stars. The poem encouraged me to confront and even befriend all of the competing impulses in the heart through a compassionate love that heals.
Dante’s journey from being lost in a dark wood of unconsciousness to the light of wholeness is the spiritual story that I felt guiding me to self-acceptance and service to others.
A Pilgrimage Beyond Belief
by Dennis Patrick Slattery
I know I am not the first to cite one’s own work as an influence on one’s spiritual life. Originally published in 2004 by Jossey-Bass under the title Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life, it was revised when the rights of the book reverted back to me. The sections I was asked to delete in the first edition were replaced in this revision. The book grew out of a three-and-a-half-month pilgrimage to monasteries, retreat centers and a Buddhist Center in the Western United States during my first academic sabbatical in 1998. I kept a journal every day of my journey which, as I reflect on it many years later, was my pilgrimage into the spiritual wilderness, there to confront demons and divinities from my past, as well to answer the fundamental question of all spiritual quests: Who are you?
It was also the journey in which my father, who had died two years before, appeared to me while I sat on a bench at twilight by a fish pond at a Carmelite Monastery in Napa Valley. His presence wanted to talk about his alcoholic life and the violence he brought into our home every weekend for decades. He accompanied me for the better part of the journey; through his presence, we healed that horrific period of our lives. I also return to read this story and to be nourished by many of the books’ insights I read during the pilgrimage. Many insights in the books I read on this transforming journey into the depths of myself weave wonder back into my story when it needs a brushing off.
by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s award-winning novel, published in 1988, was a joy to teach for over a dozen years. Not only does it reflect the horrors of slavery with a very powerful poetic lens, it reveals as well the incarcerating power of being shamed, belittled and nameless, except for what others choose to call you. It rendered for me how being compared with an animal, bullied into depredation and deformity of who one truly is, all can successfully create an imagination of scarcity whose vision of the world shrinks, so that acts of generosity and abundance are confused with excess.
However, it also revealed to me the redeeming figures that can cross one’s life path, here in the form of Baby Suggs, Holy, and Paul D. a former slave; both reveal redemptive powers for those severely wounded by enslavement. I reread it now as one of the most spiritual stories I have ever read and taught.
No Time to Lose: A Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chodron
We love our friends as they are; but when one of them suggests a book for you to read, as my friend at Kent State did with Crime and Punishment, then they gain special status in one’s imaginal life. Such was the case with a close friend I taught with at Pacifica. He suggested this book for meditation. Since then, I have read and studied and try to practice the wisdom of nine other of Pema’s books. I think I love this work the best, in part because she takes stanzas from one of the great epic poems by the 8th Century Indian philosopher and poet, Santideva, and meditates on each of them. As a reader I am invited into this path of meditation through poetry. This was a profound initiation into Buddhist thought; as I read, I found so many analogies to the Christian mystery and to the generosity of soul that both traditions emphasize and encourage in each of us as the deepest path to freedom and a life of peace. I return to this text for renewal when I feel as if I am losing the path that I am destined to honor.