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For dry and difficult times

16 December 2016

Lavinia Byrne praises advice on problems that arise with prayer

When You Can’t Pray
Finbarr Lynch
Messenger Publications £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9



DOLLYMOUNT is a name to conjure with. The Manresa Spirituality Centre there, in Dublin, is a Jesuit hothouse of talent. Finbarr Lynch is one of its luminaries. No surprise, then, that his first book, When You Pray, was reprinted twice in its first year, 2012. In When You Can’t Pray, he takes on a more difficult topic, one that will be instantly recognisable to practitioners everywhere, as well as to all who work in the ministry of spiritual direction.

Part one is addressed to the experience of the former; part two to the latter. Interestingly, he starts part one with a chapter on the “prayer of a sick person”. When you are sick, it is so very understandable that all the natural co-ordinates swing to a new place and familiar routines such as prayer become difficult. But there are other states, other darknesses and clouds that are far less acceptable because so deeply painful and unfamiliar.

Lynch is an excellent guide, with chapters that wrestle with all these imponderables and interpret them in the light of the tradition, all the time teasing out an invitation to “go beyond” the familiar and to grow.

In part two, he is far more directive, in the sense that he makes practical suggestions based on his own rich experience, and these he encapsulates in snappy formulae and questions. All this will be immensely helpful to those working at the coalface, and is based firmly on Ignatian insights. So, for example, when people say that they cannot pray, what is happening in the rest of their lives? Such a simple question, but one that opens doors rather than closing them.

I wonder if the author was well advised to accept his publisher’s decision to convert his own underlinings into bold print, making for a visually complicated page, one that I found maddening to read, despite the worthwhile contents.


Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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