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Enclosed; yet open to prayer

07 November 2006


Essence of Prayer
Ruth Burrows OCD
Burns & Oates £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

John Gaskell on a nun’s spiritual reflections

THIS BOOK opens with a question: “Prayer. We take the word for granted but ought we to do so? What do we mean by prayer? What does the word mean in the Christian context?”

What follows is all about openness to God and his invitation to prayer, but is hardly concerned to expound ways of prayer — “saying your prayers”, corporate prayer, liturgical prayer. Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite nun, and her book is marked by the spirit of Carmel. It is useful as spiritual reading that will help the prayer and Christian lives of men and women living in the world. For that, it can be recommended.

Twelve of the 19 chapters have been published previously: I wonder whether some of them were once addresses. This reader felt exposed to too much exhortation and repetition, with little persuasion. A chapter a day might be the answer.

There are chapters relating to St John of the Cross, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Teresa of Avila, and St Elizabeth of the Trinity — two of these have found their place in the Common Worship calendar. The chapter “Sustained Passion”, about St Teresa and her Carmel foundation, is particularly illuminating: Sister Burrows suggests that the reform that Teresa initiated was a reflection of her personality.

“Carmel: a stark encounter with the human condition” is another impressive essay — on the graces and challenge of the enclosed life.

There is much to be learned here about sanctity and our calling to it, but it is based on the reader’s having some acquaintance with the story and language of Carmelite spirituality. A few notes would have helped the uninformed. Some editorial detail about original contexts would have also been useful.

But the general context is there: the enclosed life of the Carmelite. Read the book for an expression of deep Roman Catholic culture. It will be valued by readers native to that, and nourishing for others; for its theme transcends ecclesiastical and confessional boundaries.

A note of thanks to Sister Gillian OCD who collected and prepared the essays; and there is a classy foreword from Sister Wendy Beckett. Price and presentation are attractive.

Prebendary John Gaskell is a former Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn.

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