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Deepening the life of prayer

by
14 May 2012

Anne Spalding finds one guide helpful, another not

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Strike the Cloud
Graeme Watson
SPCK £8.99
(978-0-281-06425-0)
ChurchTimes Bookshop £8.10

THESE are two very different books, given that they both focus on being in God’s presence.

Strike the Cloud is written from the perspective of someone relatively new to The Cloud of Unknowing and to contemplative prayer, and Watson’s enthusiasm shines through. But he is attempting a book “for those who would appreciate an introduction to, and commentary on, The Cloud written in contemporary terms”.

He picks out themes from The Cloud — such as the cloud of unknowing and the cloud of forgetting, Mary and Martha, and humility and charity — and comments on them, finishing with a review of contemporary movements in contemplative prayer. He makes some valid points and interesting connections, but I kept wondering why the reader was being told this, especially if this was the reader’s introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing.

For example, Watson follows The Cloud in beginning with the individual’s call to contemplative prayer. His discussion left me feeling that this was all too difficult to pursue, whereas the (much shorter) prologue to The Cloud makes clear to me that this call and this book must be treated with seriousness.

Also, even in the final chapter on contemporary practice, no case was made for reading The Cloud as an aid to developing contemplative prayer. Overall, then, the moments of insight were let down by insufficient attention to who the readers might be.

In contrast, Living the Jesus Prayer is written from a lifetime’s practice, and is a rewrite of an earlier (1993) version. The time and experience has given Zaleski opportunity to be sure what she wants to say, and to express it clearly and simply. She writes in short sentences and short chapters; so the content is easy to take in and to ponder.

She starts with what the Jesus Prayer is: repetition of a few words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” She then covers practicalities of praying and making the prayer part of our life, enabling unceasing prayer. The following chapters on repentance, forgiveness, sin, evil, and judgement must be informed by Zaleski’s own experience of questioning and of coming to terms with evil, and they are particularly worth attention.

The remaining chapters connect the Jesus prayer to a larger context (others, the Church, the eucharist, and death). I thought that these positive connections were fascinating compared with others’ emphasis on what must be put away, the apophatic aspect, of this form of prayer. But Zaleski is clear that relationship with God in Christ is the essence of Christian prayer, and she calls the Jesus prayer a “healing expression of our relationship with Christ”.

I found that her book makes this prayer and this relationship seem possible for anyone.

Dr Anne Spalding is a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, and lives in Suffolk.

EDITED by Edward Howells and Peter Tyler, Sources of Transformation: Revitalising Christian spirituality concentrates on the idea that spirituality is a transformative process, not a static state of being. The themes of the essays in this book range from traditional spiritual giants such as Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and William of St Thierry to more modern writers such as Samuel Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh. The final two chapters focus on sexual experience (Continuum, £17.99 (£16.20); 978-1-4411-2575-0).

EDITED by Edward Howells and Peter Tyler, Sources of Transformation: Revitalising Christian spirituality concentrates on the idea that spirituality is a transformative process, not a static state of being. The themes of the essays in this book range from traditional spiritual giants such as Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and William of St Thierry to more modern writers such as Samuel Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh. The final two chapters focus on sexual experience (Continuum, £17.99 (£16.20); 978-1-4411-2575-0).

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