It might be that you would like to give a friend a book as a Christmas present. I am often asked to recommend "books on prayer". This is one of the things that I am not very good at. The cause of this might be simple: straightforward resentment! Most of us are writhing and wrestling with a life of prayer and some (a few) can write books about it! My main reason is a little subtler; most books on prayer are bought and read for "aspirational" purposes; the reader hopes that the author will inspire and draw them further and higher. My experience is (first and second hand) that this is not the case; in fact reading with this motive can have an opposite effect – confirming a sense of poverty and failure in the spiritual life.
Having said that there are some good reasons to read books on prayer. In my own mind I make a comparison with travel guides. A detailed book about Florence may help one prepare for a visit and assess priorities etc; during the visit it can help one draw fruit from the experience, but the travel guide comes into its own on the return home. The guide helps one remember and interpret experiences that were seen and heard at the time of the visit but which washed over one at the time. This last function is the best reason for reading books. Books about prayer are not the same as praying, but they can help us earth our experience in the broader life of the church catholic and apostolic. Writing that enables reflection and understanding on the dynamics and experience of a relationship with God are life giving and life changing.
If I do recommend reading it might not be a book; it might be a small extract from a bigger volume. Here is a concrete example; some one once told me of a "picture" they experienced in prayer – Jesus stood before them and His body became diffuse at the edges and it was as if "lines of power" came out of Him. In this instance I lent them a copy of Teilhard de Chardin’s "Hymn of the Universe" and pointed out a passage that described a similair experience and contained a lengthy theological reflection on it. That "hit the spot" for that person but it so difficult to match up in, any general way, one or two books that stand a good chance of being genuinely helpful. As a rule of thumb I would always recommend "primary" rather than "secondary" books about prayer; for example, it is better to read John of the Cross than to read someone writing about John of the Cross!
I do have two "golden oldies" which are not so much books as treasure chests. They are, in my humble opinion, profound works of poetry in prose. The first is a very small book (one hundred and fifty pages) " Encountering the Depths" by Mother Mary Clare and the other is " Prayer" by Hans urs Von Balthasar; both of these books repay careful and prayerful reading. They both deal with the fundamentals of prayer and the prayer experience – both of them are resourced by a love for God’s word; and both draw on the Christian Spiritual tradition of both East and West. Mother Mary Clare’s book is simple and straightforward in expression, Von Balthasars’ is more demanding in style and syntax. I have several copies of both – they are my lending library!
Andy Hawes is parish priest of Edenham, Witham on the Hill and Swinstead in the Diocese of Lincoln.
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