When the author of Ecclesiastes penned, “On the writing of books there is no end” he had no idea what the future of publication held for prayer-books. Books on prayer abound and every year you can expect to see new books promising some new spiritual insight which will make you a better pray-er. Despite this (and seminary) I am still a neophyte at prayer and struggle, like everyone, to have regular prayer times and establish a rhythm of prayer.
What is refreshing about Prayer Book of the Early Christians is that has no new spiritual insights of any kind and it makes no promises that ‘reading it’ will make you a better pray-er. Rather, this book draws on the wisdom of the early church and the Orthodox tradition. This is not a book to be ‘read’ though I have done that for the purposes of this review. Rather this is a book to be prayed.
John A McGuckin is an Orthodox priest and patristic scholar. He has gathered up the pieces of this prayer-book from the richness of the Christian tradition, particularly the Christian east. After a brief introduction offering advice about prayer and the use of this book, the book unfolds in three parts. Part I presents prayers for the Ritual Offices of the day (i.e. Vespers, Compline, Matins, the first and third hours of the day). Part II contains rituals and prayer services for various occasions (traveling, the blessing of a house, prayer for the sick, grace before meals, personal repentance, etc.) Part III collects various prayers and hymns from the Ancient saints.
What I really like how this book unfolds the beauty and prayerfulness of the Orthodox tradition. If the church in the East has a gift for the whole church it is how the life of prayer penetrates their entire theological reflection. These prayers and rituals are rich and beautiful reflections on the triune God.
Of course some of what is here is foreign to me as an Evangelical christian. My understanding of the Christian faith has been more profoundly shaped by the Roman Road (not the ‘road to Rome’) than by the Great Tradition, so the practice of candles, incense, praying with icons are all things that are new to me (these are not strictly required to pray any of these prayers but suggested by McGuckin as part of one’s ‘prayer kit’) Also the ritual offices include prayers offered to Mary the mother of God. I am willing to admit that Evangelicals do not pay Mary due homage, but these are prayers I can’t in good conscience pray. I mention these things not as a criticism, but to say that while I appreciate and am enthusiastic about this prayerbook, McGuckin’s theological tradition is different from my own and not every prayer speaks meaningfully to me in my context.
My one criticism of this book is that I feel that a book called ‘Prayer Book of the Early Christians’ should have more prayers gathered in it than it in fact does. But the choice to restrict the amount of prayers may have been intentional because what we are left with is a short, hardcover volume which contributes to its personal usefulness and portability.
This book may be used profitably by individuals and churches who are interested in dipping deeper into the Christian tradition and the life of prayer (Paraclete has special prices for multiple copies. As I have indicated, reading a Prayer Book is the wrong way to assess it. This book has prayers to pray and commends a lifestyle of prayer to entered into. I, myself, am using this book over the season of Lent, planning to pray ‘the hours’ and likely will blog about my experience with this in the coming weeks. My initial assessment of the book is positive and think that this book can enrich your (and my) devotional life.
Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me a copy for the purpose of this review. Please stay tuned for further thoughts on how these prayers are leading me into an encounter with the Triune God!