A guide to prayer that swims against the current


Prayer in the Catholic Tradition
edited by Robert J Wicks, Franciscan Media , £31

The latter half of the 20th century saw the ascendancy of buzzwords, handmaidens of fads and fashions. Sometimes perfectly good old words were co-opted for new ends. One such word is “spirituality”, which was often employed as a safe word by those seeking to be spiritual but not religious.

For a Catholic, spirituality is properly seen as centred in God and lived in the Church, incorporating all that gives life to our faith and impels us deeper in faith and in our service of God and neighbour. An integral and essential element of this is prayer, and this handbook seeks to serve as a practical compendium of the vibrant Catholic tradition of prayer.

Wicks intends the book to be a single, broad and inclusive resource for the practice of prayer in the Catholic tradition: comprehensive but not exhaustive. To this end it invokes “leading and upcoming voices” in the Church. In all, there are 45 such voices, each with a chapter averaging around 15 pages.

Many of these voices are more familiar to Americans than the British but some may be familiar enough, such as Fr Ronald Rolheiser, Fr Richard Rohr, Sister Joyce Rupp and Fr Laurence Freeman. The average age of the contributors is in the late 60s, with a handful in their 30s or 40s, and the approach of many of them will reflect the generation in which they were formed. So for this reader the book presents a mixed bag.

This is too extensive a book to examine in detail. By express intention it is to be dipped into, reading where one’s immediate need or interest leads. To this end, each section begins with a brief overview of what follows. Wicks is adamant that this is not a textbook, but a workbook. If there is no change, no deepening in the Christian life and prayer of the reader, Wicks feels the book will be of little importance.

Some chapters are particularly good. Wicks on prayerfulness, the first chapter, is essential reading, reminding us that prayerfulness is not the sum total of a series of acts, but a “new centre of gravity” in life, bearing fruit in “eyes open to the presence of God” here and now. For me, the logical chapter to read next is on Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, by Fr Leopold Glueckert. He offers an excellent biographical sketch of the 17th-century French Carmelite and a useful overview of the uncanonised saint’s “methodless method”, which is accessible to all and ecumenically attractive.

Fr Dennis Billy on traditional prayer is also well worth reading, reminding us that prayer is necessary for salvation and that traditional prayer is rooted in the Lord’s Prayer, distinct from liturgical worship but ordered to it and deriving life from it. It also nurtures a Catholic identity and sense of belonging within the communion of saints. He notes that traditional prayer can sustain a Catholic congregation when it is without clergy over long periods, as was once the case in Japan. He also points out that traditional prayer employs a sound Christian anthropology in engaging the various dimensions of the human person.

Sister Mary Catherine Nolan on Marian prayer is comprehensive, informative and balanced. Sister Mary Frohlich’s chapter on contemplation is also very helpful. Fr Hung Trung Pham provides a good introduction to the Ignatian tradition, centred on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and revealing the Examen of Conscience as its most accessible and portable feature.

For lovers of the Carmelite tradition there is much to chew on throughout the book, with the Dominican and Augustinian traditions also well represented. The chapter on distractions is cheering.

The chapter on the Benedictine tradition is, however, disappointing, being too fluffy and sentimental, with little reference to the Rule of St Benedict, and far too much to seating and lighting. The liturgical heart of Benedictine prayer is underplayed, and the chapter strikes me as a wasted opportunity. Likewise, the chapter on liturgical prayer was mixed: too quiet on worship as done for God’s sake not ours and unconvincingly starry-eyed about the post-conciliar liturgical reforms.

At around £30, this book is a reasonable investment for clergy, seminarians and Religious, as well as the keen lay person, despite its mixed offerings. It should help one to follow Abbot Chapman’s dictum: Pray as you can, not as you can’t.