IF ONE day I have to be physically restrained, it may be after someone, in all probability a member of the clergy, has responded to something that I have said along the lines: “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. I’m not a theologian.”
What I hope I will do, however, is say: “That’s a real shame, because your congregation is full of theologians They may not call themselves that, but they ask theological questions, often without knowing it, all the time. And we clergy are meant to be there, not to help them to get the right answers necessarily, but to make sure that they are asking the right questions.”
The two books here are, in their different ways, admirable attempts to contribute real substance to contemporary Christian faith, and fight against that false humility that exalts ignorance as a virtue. Erik Varden is the Abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. His book is a series of reflections on the importance of the conviction that we are not alone — when so much might persuade us otherwise. At the heart of this is the idea of remembrance: we must properly remember that we are created, that we are led and guided by God (the Exodus narrative), that Jesus bids us (plural!) do something in memory of him, and so on.
The reader should beware: Varden’s approach opens up far more to ponder than the “shattering of loneliness”. There is almost too much material here to take in. This is profound meditation on what it means to be human, and the enrichment that a thoughtful faith can bring to that humanity.
Gioia’s book similarly is about far more than “contemplative prayer”: this is not a how-to-do-it manual. The first section, focusing on the Psalms, examines the place of feelings and emotions, and how they do (or do not) link with themes of silence and repose. The second section is strongly Johannine: how does the “Word of God” speak to us? How is Jesus a role here for prayer? How does God speak to us today through scripture? The third section opens this out by the inclusion of a play and a novel: how does our cultivation of contemplative prayer expand our view of God in the world? How does contemplation lead to an engagement with the world and not a distancing from it?
I suppose I had problems with both of these books initially. First, they repay slow and careful reading, which is something that I always find hard to do: (my) impatience is the enemy of contemplation. And, second, they use scripture in a way that I am not used to. I am more used to working my way systematically through a text, whereas both these books drink liberally from the many different perspectives that the Bible provides.
Is this confusing for the reader, or am I worrying about nothing? I suspect the latter. Both books come from deep wells of prayer and thought. Both are about far more than their respective titles would suggest. And both provide rich sources of reflection for any who want to be reminded that Christian life and faith — still — are worthy of serious consideration, in a world where all too often people settle for a simplified, sanitised version.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.
The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian remembrance
Church Times Bookshop £9.90
Touched by God: The way to contemplative prayer
Church Times Bookshop £9.90