the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Prayer: Five Books

Prayer: Five Books

A good book is good; five is even better. In this next instalment of our Five Books series, Judith Brown recommends five books on prayer.


Prayer is a universal marker and practice of the Christian life.  Yet it causes some of the greatest anxiety among faithful believers who feel that they do not know how to pray, do not pray “well” (whatever that means), or have ceased to be able to pray.  As a result there are probably more books on prayer than on any other aspect of the Christian life. But such books are potentially dangerous, for several reasons.

First, prayer is not something we achieve or learn to be “good at”.  Prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of Jesus himself, within us. Our task is to be present before God, to listen, to be open to God’s work in us.

Second, each generation of maturing Christians lives in their own culture and will need to find the right language or idiom in which to speak of prayer. [1]

Third, each Christian has to learn to pray in the way most appropriate for their own temperament and stage of life.  (It is wise advice, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”)  It is particularly important to underline that people’s ways of praying do—and should—change as they enter different phases of life. For more on this, see Richard Rohr’s helpful Falling Upward. A spirituality for the two halves of life (2001.)

Finally, reading books on prayer can be  an escape from the hard effort, confusion, and sometimes discomfort of prayer itself. It is a sort of pious procrastination.  

With these warnings in mind (to myself as well as to you) I suggest 5 recent books:

Rowan Williams, Being Christian. Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (2014): this has already been mentioned in the post (10 October 2018) on 5 books on Christian spiritual practice. Chapter 4 is a profound introduction to the necessity and nature of Christian prayer. I would recommend it as the best starting point for any Christian beginning to pray seriously, or feels “stuck” in prayer and needs refreshment and insight.

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The author introduces us to three early Christians (from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries CE) who wrestled with and wrote about the reality of prayer: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.  Each began with the Lord’s own prayer as the starting point for Christian prayer.  It is illuminating and consoling to hear these great teachers of the faith asking many of the questions we also ask.  Some of their advice is practical—turning up and praying on a regular basis, learning to be quiet in the depths of oneself.  But as Fr Rowan insists—and we all need to hear this—Christian prayer is not fundamentally about our striving, our achievements, our piety.  We are called to let Jesus’s own prayer happen in us as he continually prays, as he did in his earthly life, to God as Father:  “…he is speaking to the Father, gazing into the depths of the Father’s love”  (pp. 62-3). But though we may often pray alone prayer has profound social implications.  We realise we need to live more at peace with others, to align ourselves with the values demonstrated in Christ’s life, with his understanding of the infinite love and mercy of God, and to lay aside the self-centredness which clutters and distorts our lives. What is ultimately at stake is openness to Christ, allowing him to live and work in us, and transform us into Christlikeness: “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending the welcome and the love of God to others”  (pp.80-1).

 My next two books are more “hands on” in rather different ways.

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In Creating a Life with God. The call of ancient prayer practices (2003), Daniel Wolpert writes from the reformed tradition but subtitles his book, “The call of ancient prayer practices”.  He writes for people who feel called to journey deeper into relationship with God instead of settling for prayer as petition or set formulae, as sadly people so often see it.  He introduces us to a number of very different “practices” which over centuries have been fruitful for many Christians.  With each “practice” he also introduces an important historical figure who has made this practice his or her own. So we have, to name a few, Lectio divina, or meditative reading of scripture, the Jesus Prayer, the Examen, wordless prayer, prayer through writing, walking, or through contemplating God in creation. At the end there are practical exercises in each practice.  Wolpert underlines that these are ways of developing the skills and habits of turning up, listening, cooperating with God and travelling on the journey. Not all will feel right or be fruitful for everyone: we differ in our temperaments and backgrounds.  But fundamental to all of them is a commitment to silence and solitude – for only in silence do we begin to listen, to turn our minds and hearts towards God and allow him to become the centre of our world (p. 27).

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Fr Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and religious, gives us a series of short reflections in Prayer. Our Deepest  Longing (2013). It is a humane, realistic and deeply encouraging little book of only 70 pages. As his title suggests, we are made for prayer: our deepest longing is for God and prayer is the way of connection with him. There is no one way to pray but there is one non-negotiable – to turn up and to do it on a regular basis.  He offers his reflections,  hoping that in prayer his readers may hear God in their deepest place, speaking the transforming words, “I love you.”  Only that can make us whole. (p. ix)  The reflections are rich and helpful.  I particularly liked the ones on praying the divine office with the whole church for the world;  the way we are misled by the expectation that prayer should always be “a great experience”, prayer as surrender, and the final group under the title, “Growing to maturity in prayer”.  These are meditations for reflection and should be read slowly – and with gratitude that we are not alone as we long to listen to the voice of Love.

My final two books take up the twin themes of silence and solitude and focus on the calling to more contemplative forms of prayer, and the context in which this prayer can blossom. They are more demanding than the previous two and really invite, and reward, reading and re-reading.

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Thomas Merton, Where Prayer Flourishes (republished 2018). This is a wonderful book – brief, direct and profoundly challenging.  It was the final work of one of the mid 20thcentury’s greatest spiritual writers, and was with publishers at the time of his sudden death in 1968, with the rather forbidding title, The Climate of Monastic Prayer.  He clearly did not think it was only for monks and nuns; and this new edition with the new title thankfully makes it far more widely accessible to those who take prayer seriously.  The early chapters are more historical, and then from Chapter XIII he turns to the experience of “mature spiritual contemplation” (p. 92) and the predictable and proper “darkness” which accompanies it.  Merton draws deeply on St John of the Cross here. Contemplative Christian prayer is not concerned or directed towards knowledge about God but “the realization that our very being is penetrated with his knowledge and love for us …. a knowledge not of him as the object of our scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us.  It is in proportion as we are known to him that we find our real being and our identity in Christ.” (pp. 101-2)  Such prayer involves darkness and emptiness and a growing sense of utter dependence on God. To use perhaps the most striking phrase in the book it also involves “dread” – not a cringing fearfulness before an all-powerful God but a sense of one’s total alienation from one’s true identity, a deep knowledge of one’s rebellion and sinfulness. But this dread is purification and grace. “Indeed it is a great gift of God, for it is the precise point of our encounter with his fullness.” (p. 130) Or to quote a 12th century Cistercian, the person who prays in dereliction and dread is in a “hell of mercy and not of wrath” (p. 131): but this frees us from ourselves into the fullness of God’s love.

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Martin Laird  also deals with the experience of contemplative prayer. As an American academic and priest, used to engaging with an emerging generation of prayers, he writes in a more modern idiom – immensely helpful for those who find Merton’s language difficult.  An Ocean of Light. Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (2019) is Laird’s third on the contemplative journey, following Into the Silent Land (2006) and A Sunlit Absence (2011).  Some might find the first of these the best place to start, but the third stands alone and is rich and helpful.  It  recognises the difficulties of embarking on and sticking with the journey of contemplative prayer in a world of distraction and competing calls on our sense of identity and worth.  But beneath all these distractions and temptations is the ultimate truth of our identity – God is our homeland, and intimacy with him is “coming home”, to wholeness and freedom.  In some senses contemplation is unchartable territory, but he offers for understanding the journey in this territory the themes of moving from the reactive mind to the receptive mind and to the luminous mind; though he acknowledges that these are not clear stages and that there is much fluidity as praying people sink deeper into the experience of God.  The final part is called “Our Uninvited Guests” and is a very helpful discussion of depression and anxiety in the life of those who genuinely try to pray. Contemplative prayer may well not cure us from the sort of depression and its allies which just refuse to budge. But the experience, however unwelcome, can produce great spiritual fruits, particularly in intercession. 

Many of life’s other wounds are also woven into redemption through the practice of prayer.  Laird quotes R.S. Thomas often in his books, and near the end of this one he quotes from Thomas’sEvening, which might stand as a definition of prayer:

Let us stand still, then, in the interval

of our wounding, till the silence

turn golden and love is

a moment eternally overflowing.


  1. In this context it is probable that some books which meant much to older Christians will not “speak” to younger believers.  Among such older and often profound books are C. S. Lewis’s, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly On Prayer (1963); Simon Tugwell’s two volumes, Prayer in Practice and Prayer: Living with God (1974); Kenneth Leech’s True Prayer. An Introduction to Christian Spirituality (1980); and Christopher Bryant’s The Heart In Pilgrimage (1980).  It takes even more effort to read the great late medieval English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, though it is immensely rewarding

 

 

 

Jean Vanier (1928-2019): More Human

Jean Vanier (1928-2019): More Human