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Feeding the soul with riches

16 November 2010

Peter McGeary welcomes books of prayers drawn from the glories of the past


Lift Up your Hearts: A prayer book for Anglicans
Andrew Davison, Andrew Nunn, and Toby Wright, editors
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Wonder, Fear and Longing: A book of prayers
Mark Yaconelli

SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

IN 1946, the composer Igor Stravinsky produced a set of six lectures, “Poetics of Music”. In them, he considers the things that make the creative artist. One of Stravinsky’s themes is the im­portance of history and order as a route to creative freedom: “unless I am bound I am not free.” We need to be bound by what has gone before us in order to be more truly ourselves.

There is a precise analogy here with prayer: we can all pray for whatever we like, but it needs a bit of discipline and care for it to be Christian prayer. For St Augustine, for instance, the criterion for a prayer to be Christian was that it be compatible with any part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Two thousand years have bequeathed to us a huge wealth of prayers and devotions to feed the soul and adorn the liturgy; and it is one of the greatnesses of the Anglican tradition that it has always been unafraid of plundering the spiritual riches of others.

It is good, therefore, to be able to welcome Lift Up Your Hearts. This volume describes itself as “a prayer book for Anglicans”, which is a shame in a way, as it deserves much wider use. The structure of the book is that of the eucharist, although, thankfully, it does not yoke itself to any particular rite.

After some introductory remarks, each section contains a wealth of prayers old and new from a wide variety of sources, and ends with a short, didactic section about some aspect of prayer. An appendix adds various devotions that do not fit into the eucharistic “shape” but which are nevertheless important to have in one’s spiritual armoury.

This volume deserves wide use. It is reminiscent of the manuals that Mowbrays used to produce of supplementary private devotions for use during the liturgy. It would make a very good confirmation gift. If I have a criticism, it concerns layout, not the content: can this kind of manual of prayer not be much smaller, please? Volumes such as this become trusted friends more easily if they can be slipped into the pocket or handbag.

Mark Yaconelli’s book takes its shape not from liturgy but from human experiences: love, longing, fear, suffering, and so on. Each chapter begins personally and anecdotally; then follow verses from scripture, prayers, and reflections that illustrate and draw out the particular subject under consider­ation. Again, the sources used are many and varied.

This is a more subjective volume, and a part of me wants to issue a spiritual health warning: too much emoting and introspection can be dangerous for the soul! I do not think that this is the author’s intention, however; and, used carefully, this book will enable the reader to engage more fully with those internal faculties that animate any prayer worthy of the name.

Do not trust the publisher’s blurb on the cover: none of this is “ground-breaking”, as it seems to imply. This is basic stuff — and the book is all the better for it.

Amid the blizzard of liturgical verbiage that is Common Worship, it is good to have two succinct volumes that, in their different ways, try to feed the Christian soul with the riches of the Church’s past.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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