IN THE past few months, I have had to lead quiet days for different groups of men and women preparing for ordination. Not having done much of this kind of thing, I was aware that, in my inexperience, I was using far too many words to communicate far too many things. I only hope that they got something out of it all.
Andrew Mayes uses plenty of words in his book, but he does so in a much more focused way than I did, to get the reader to concentrate more closely on particular aspects of the spiritual life. He is an experienced retreat-giver, and knows that any words he uses are there to instil prayer and reflection in the reader.
Rather than throw out lots of ideas to see if some of them will stick, he uses each chapter to drill down and distil reflection on an aspect of the spiritual life: one’s spiritual history, resources that can help, confronting darkness in prayer, being open to surprising things, and so on.
Mayes spent several years living and working in the Holy Land, and this experience gives shape to the text: each chapter comes out from the ground, so to speak, as an observation on some aspect of the geology or geography of a place leads to reflections on the spiritual life and what we can learn. This is, I suppose, a kind of “contextual spirituality”. Each chapter ends with questions to ponder and an exercise to do, which helps to make the book usable by groups as well as individuals.
The Bible has bequeathed to us an inheritance of imagery which Christians cannot help but believe: the ground and what is below is the place of burial, death, the underworld, damnation. To apprehend God ,we need to look up and ascend. And many are the writers who have helped this imagery along, with their circles of hell or their spiritual mountains.
Mayes is rightly not content with this: digging down, going underground, is to do here with profundity, truthfulness, and substance: the journey that can be exhilarating, frightening, and difficult, but which leads to transformation and true enrichment, bringing one closer to the One who is beyond all images.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
Journey to the centre of the soul: A handbook for explorers
Church Times Bookshop £8.10