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Pray first, theologise later

by
19 December 2014

Bruce Duncan finds wise insights in these two meditative books

Reflections
Dougall A. S. Smith, editor
CreateSpace £4.15
(978-1-49228530-4)

Treasured and Transformed: Vision for the heart, understanding for the mind
Daniel J. O'Leary
Columba £12.50
(978-1-78218-087-6)
Church Times Bookshop £11.25 (Use code CT709 )

A FRIEND of mine kept a commonplace book, not to record comforting quotations, but to write about anything he found hard to understand. The slim book Reflections would appeal to him, and to all who would rather struggle with difficult questions than accept facile answers.

The reflections are the philosophical and theological musings of an anonymous author who bequeathed his manuscripts to his friend Dougall Smith. Smith edited and published them in the hope that others would "be able to complete what my friend has attempted".

The author remained a practising Anglican all his life, but wrestled honestly and intelligently with the fundamentals of Christian faith. His starting-point is spiritual experience. "I would not advise a person who doubts dogmas but thinks that the spiritual life may be a serious option to read books on metaphysics, or to study the supposed proofs of God's existence, but to pray or meditate with an open heart, and see what happens."

He recommends detachment, disciplined quietness, listening, and attention to the thoughts and ideas that arise by themselves and are not merely "the devices and desires of our own hearts". Pray first and theologise later is always good advice.

He grapples inconclusively with the concepts of God, the soul, evil, truth, and compassion. And with the doctrines of hell, the fall, sin, and redemption, referring often to non-Christian understandings, not least the Zen Master, Bankei, and the unborn Buddha mind. A central question is whether spiritual experience is anything more than an aspect of the human mind.

Unfinished and tentative as these writings are, we must be grateful to Dougall Smith for deciding to publish them. They are a work in progress, a stimulation, a goad, and a challenge to readers to continue the conversation.

Treasured and Transformed by Daniel O'Leary, a priest in the RC diocese of Leeds well-known for his writings and talks, is much less cerebral, but in its own way is an equally challenging book. It is in two parts. Part One (Vision for the Heart) is a compilation of 26 articles most of which have been published in The Tablet. Part Two (Understanding for the Mind) contains eight extracts rewritten from earlier books, and some new material.

O'Leary dedicates the book to "you who carry the seeds of a new beginning in your hearts . . . for yourself, for the Church, and for the world". Each short reflection, about three pages long, skilfully stimulates "the sacramental imagination" to disclose the deeper reality, a vision of the incarnate beauty, that we so often fail to notice within and around us. Peppered with memorable anecdotes, illustrations, and quotations, these enjoyable reflections offer many wise insights.

This is a book packed with good incarnational pastoral theology, one to be kept handy for dipping into, or perhaps for spiritual reading in personal or group prayer.

Canon Duncan was Founding Principal of Sarum College.

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