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Guides along an upward path

24 May 2013

John Armson looks into four books that offer help with deepening prayer

Two Paths to God
Fintan Creaven SJ
The Columba Press £7.99
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Touched by God
Anthea Dove
The Columba Press £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.20 (Use code CT799 )

Monastery of the Mind: A pilgrimage with St Ignatius
Edward Leigh
St Paul's Publishing £10.95
Church Times Bookshop £9.85 (Use code CT799 )

On Holiday with God: Making your own retreat - a companion and guide
Sue Pickering
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT799 )

HERE are four very different books with a common theme: prayer with God. Any one of them might be just the thing to take on a lazy summer holiday - or read while stuck at home - for any one of them might well help waken up unrecognised needs and/or deepen ways in which a (now recognised) need might be met.

But, even though the four writers differ from each other, as they each come at their goal by very different routes, in one way or another, each aims to help their reader deepen his or her understanding and prayer.

Edward Leigh is a family man with children. He builds his book around a family holiday in Spain, though for him it was more pilgrimage than holiday: a pilgrimage of searching. (Perhaps his children may have rated things the other way round.)

Leigh took his family to visit a series of holy places associated with St Ignatius of Loyola. He writes of these places simply, but with love and excitement. Each place made an impact on him, and to each chapter he adds an appendix that suggests themes, for readers to ponder, if they choose, in prayer and meditation on how what he has seen might provoke their reflections and devotion. These suggestions are humbly and devoutly offered, but, I sensed, became less specific as the holiday continued.

The second part of the book offers more specific advice about the use of Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. In summary: a friendly, accessible book for a serious beginner.

The Jesuit Fintan Creaven takes a more didactic and structured approach. His background has been more formal that that of Leigh's. He is "further on". The "two paths" of this book's title reflect the two "strong threads of spirituality" that have formed Creaven's own faith: that of St Ignatius of Loyola, and that of the early Irish Celtic Church. (As someone who has stood on Skellig Michael, out in an Atlantic gale, I remain amazed at the disciplined depth of the piety of the latter.)

Whereas Leigh reveals the excitement of an explorer, Creavan offers the more structured reflections of someone already steeped in the tradition. Perhaps this is a book to read after the one by Leigh.

Sue Pickering, like Leigh, connects her book with a holiday. She is accustomed to training spiritual directors, and her book is more formally organised around techniques and teaching. Writing from New Zealand, she offers yet another, fresh way into the Ignatian tradition.

The subtitle of her book is Making your own retreat - a companion and guide, and suggests seeing it as "your holiday with God". She offers, as that simple phrase suggests, a helpful, down-to-earth guide, consistent with such an approach, and suggests easy access to weighty issues. She urges getting away, silence, and space (as in walking), so that the reader can meet "something bigger than me" (my phrase, not hers).

Her opening chapter offers advice in preparation for a retreat before suggesting practical help with the use of time. (I suspect the likelihood of being bored is often a reason why people fear retreats.) The two final chapters continue her very practical approach to a very special opportunity. "After you have . . . unloaded, unpacked and made a cuppa . . . find a place which can become your sacred place for prayer and reflection" is a typical illustration of her down-to-earth common sense.

Differing even more from the other three, Anthea Dove has produced - in her maturity, I may say - more than 100 brief anecdotes, poems, and reflections, all seemingly distinct and separate, but all circling round the central, warming fire: God. She refers to her pieces as "random"; but all have meat in them, even though - to begin with, at least - one will speak more powerfully to one reader, another to another. (It would probably be worth while revisiting later the ones that didn't speak the first time round.)

Her book is less didactic than the others, but this may make it more accessible to some readers. Her stories vary. Some are touching, some brave (as in "brave new world"), some poetic, and some didactic; some refer to scripture; and some fly free. Anyone reading her book will surely be caught by one or more, and hence, perhaps, then begin to understand any that didn't speak the first time round.

So, all in all, a good collection to choose from. No one book fits all sizes, and, in passing, it was interesting to see how the feminine and masculine minds differ. All these books are about the same goal: a deepening of a spiritual life. But the minds behind them take different approaches, probably because of different personal histories, and (perhaps) because male and female minds see things in different ways.

By tackling more than one of these books, might we benefit by starting to understand more deeply which is "our" way?

Canon John Armson is a former Precentor of Rochester Cathedral.

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