The Cultivated Life

Susan S. Phillips, The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy, InterVarsity Press, May 2015, paperback, 256 pages

Who can deny that the popular lyrics “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right” (Gerry Rafferty/Joe Egan, 1973) aptly describe our political culture? Likewise, who is bold enough to deny that the “circus life” is an apt metaphor for large portions our life? A circus can’t be boiled down to an aggregation of spectacles—the presence of clowns doesn’t make the circus. Outlandish characters are usually part of the equation, but when we say circus, we’re more so referencing a particular environment, a style of presentation, a way of listening and watching. The Cultivated Life sprouts out of this powerful metaphor, combined with another, the antithetical metaphor of the cultivated garden.

Phillips constantly returns to these guiding metaphors, passionately serving as a sort of “spiritual director” for her readers. Discipline and desire is the starting point, but also the destination. The journey between consists of expounding these metaphors, adding new metaphors, and perhaps even more crucially, sharing stories about “ordinary” people she deals with. In the circus life, we are so engrossed with the “performers” that we suppress our longing and obscure the “rhythms and nourishment of garden living” (210). Our attention is fragmented and our relationships are fractured (19). We “complain about the circus even while participating in its production” (26) Phillips doesn’t claim the ability to permanently escape, but rather to “see, live, and tell the story of the tended garden” from within the circus (26). She is seeking to nurture hope, devotion, and flourishing in the Christian life, or as the subtitle calls it, “receiving joy.”

The Cultivated Life stands or falls with the power of metaphor and stories. In a sense, this book is a list of simple but helpful practices: listening, stopping, Sabbath keeping, cultivating attention, praying with Scripture, cultivating attachment, receiving spiritual direction, and cultivating friendships. Though the coverage of these items is usually helpful, the real power consists in the conceptual grid given, especially in regard to its metaphors. Long after the reader forgets individual details about the stories or the spiritual practices, I suspect impressions there will be lingering impressions of the power of metaphors and stories, and in particular, these specific metaphors as they relate to the Christian life.

I love how the chapters of this book bleed into each other. That is not to say that appropriate transitions are missing, but rather that hard and fast divisions are avoided. The reader is constantly challenged to integrate material from previous chapters into the next. The chapters on listening, stopping, and cultivating attachment, in particular, bleed thoroughly into the other chapters.

If this book is reducible to any one practice, it would be “listening.” Listening inheres in all the other practices (205). You don’t need to listen much at the circus—there is plenty of sound, but it is “background to the spectacle” (64). We are surrounded by sound—but most sounds are indistinct and unimportant. Like a television blaring in the other room, we are simultaneously listening and not listening. If anything sets garden living apart, it is the way it “cultivates in us an open heart” and features “listening with care” as an “essential practice (63). “Listening” includes literal listening, but also attentiveness to our own practice. The book forcefully and consistently rejects our culture’s instinctive denial of the power of practice. It not only makes the case for the power of practice in general, but perhaps more importantly advocates self-awareness of our own practices (48). Beyond listening to others speaking, we need to “listen to [our] life, paying particular attention to [our] habits” (59).

…in spirituality courses I often ask people to listen to their lives, noticing over the course of a week what they do routinely that turns their hearts to God (47) .

The chapter on keeping the Sabbath fits well with the others, and creatively makes the case for Sabbath keeping in the context of cultivation. Alas, a day existing “outside of instrumental legitimation and economic calculation” (100)! We are challenged and encouraged to enjoy “unmeasured” time on the Sabbath. Oh how easily we measure our life out in “posts, blogs, tweets, laps, spinning intervals, margins, activity units…” (96-97)!  There is good material here that will be helpful for individuals and families who seek to establish a more restful and spiritually nurturing culture in our home on the Lord’s Day. It was also interesting to see Phillips present the Sabbath as “a radically anticircus discipline,” which it is. It breaks “the illusion of the circus that it, like the contemporary marketplace, never stops” (92).  It is nice to see significant references to Isaiah 58:13, a text which isn’t frequently engaged with in contemporary discussions of the Sabbath.

If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14

The two chapters on friendship are worth the price of the book. The analysis of the place of friendship in our culture and contextualization of it within our spiritual cultivation is excellent. Friendship is presented as militating against the circus in that it enables escape from the dichotomy of always being either an observer or a performer. I especially appreciated the set of challenging questions offered to nudge the reader to ponder the role of friendship in their life (181). Friendship requires spiritual work, but also allows for the “stretching, nourishing and cleansing of our souls” (173). The discussion of the role of technology in our friendships is incisive, helpful, and also rather sensitively presented. Fascinating observations are made about social media’s role in cultivating a “friend hookup” culture (171). Throughout the book, Phillips addresses technology in a careful and balanced way, giving credit where credit is due and yet not blind to the pitfalls. The student of media ecology is unlikely to discover anything completely new here, but will probably appreciate and respect Phillips’ analysis.

For me, the most inspiring part of the book was “The Life of Significant Soil” in the second to last chapter. The chapter is about bearing fruit, which is very “visible” in concept, but this section transitions to the less visible regions of our impact. It borrows an image from T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” of “significant soil.” It is is amazingly fertile ground for pondering our potential legacy to future generations.

… few…consciously think, I want to live a life of significant soil. But many…hope to be generative, to live a life that will benefit those who will be planted in the soil we leave behind. Significant soil is humble, for the nutrients in the soil are buried and their origin obscured. Most of us know our parents and…our grandparents, but we don’t know the earlier generations…We know our teachers, but we don’t know the people who taught them…Some of our fruit is immediately received…while some falls, decomposes and reenters the soil at our feet, the soil we leave behind. Eliot’s image affirms that even the soil remaining where we were once planted, though unseen, matters and the seeds may find life in it. (204-205)

Phillips then poses a challenge reflection question. She asks the reader about the persons who contributed to their “soil” and in what ways they hope to contribute significance to their “soil.” I was seriously challenged to think through the legacy I am contributing to my children and their children’s children. This on example reflects a general “fertility” in the thoughts that she puts forward.

Though my impression of this book is by and large positive, I have a few mild criticisms. First, the discussion of “mindfulness” (109-117), part of the chapter on attention, is a bit fuzzy and gives very little closure. It may require more focus and content distillation. Second, the book is very eclectic in its sources, both a strength and weakness. Jumping around between highly convergent sources is distracting and while the book is generally very accessible, some parts maybe intimidating to a person without a background in sociology. I think there is a place for a book quite similar to this one which is less expansive in its sources more focused in on a distinctively Christian spirituality and may be more useful for a broader range of “study groups.” Third, the “Praying With Scripture” chapter rang disappointingly hollow. It could be that the extensive discussion of monastic practices put off this thoroughgoing evangelical Protestant. More likely, though, my disappointment it is rooted in the fact that it isn’t as meaty as the other chapters and despite bringing some good points forward, it doesn’t develop them fully or give good concrete suggestions on how to pray with differing parts of the Bible. As an aside, I refer interested readers to Donald Whitney’s Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2015) as a book that, in the same spirit, gives a fuller and more concrete approach from the Baptist tradition. Fourth, and this is perhaps the most minor item, I’m puzzled by Phillips’ application of Mark 8:24, the passage about the blind man seeing people as “trees walking,” in an otherwise cogent reflection on the mixed metaphor of “walking” vs “being rooted” found in Colossians 2 (33). This use of the reference to people as ”trees walking” seems quite a stretch and is repeatedly returned to throughout the book.  I remain puzzled about how she arrived at it.

In conclusion, this is for the most part a fertile, pleasurable read. It applies to Christian believers of various walks of life and divergent traditions, helping those who living in the midst of the circus live a richly cultivated life full of “God’s enlivening and completing grace” and consequently blessing the world” (216). If you find some parts frustrating or stumble into some of the same critiques I’ve identified—please consider patiently working through the book anyway. You will be rewarded even if you don’t find all sections your “cup of tea.” I plan to return to it in the near future–at the very least to revisit some of the best chapters. There is a lot of “homework” to do and making a garden in the midst of the circus is a task worthy of serious reflection!


Image credit: MissMessie

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About the Contributor

Mark Nenadov

Mark Nenadov
Mark Nenadov is a poet from Essex, Ontario, Canada. He lives with his lovely wife and their three young children. Mark's poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies in the United States, Canada, Pakistan, India, Australia, England, and Ireland. See for more details. 

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