The Spirit and ‘the Letter’ of Prayer: a book review

About a week-and-a-half ago, I received a copy of Letters to Jacob: Mostly on Contemplative Prayer in the mail. It was a short book, only ninety pages(more booklet than book). I thought I would breeze through the book, but that isn’t what happened. I’ve been busy and this short book beckoned me to slow down. I read several of these letters through several times. I mulled over them and their implications. The author, Father John-Julian, is a hermit of the Order of Julian of Norwich (OJN). He shares his insights into prayer, contemplation and ascetical theology.

letters-to-jacob-mostly-about-contemplative-prayer-epub-version-4The title riffs off C.S. Lewis’s classic work Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on  Prayer.  The book began as a set of thirteen letters to a young seminarian who was new to ascetical theology and interested in the practice of contemplative prayer (89). The letters went through several revisions and were passed around to other seminarians and even used as a textbook for ascetical theology. This is first time these letters have been formally published and the number of letters has swelled from thirteen to twenty-two. I am uncertain if the letters’ original recipient was named Jacob or if the name alludes the biblical patriarch famous for his wrestling with God.

Father John-Julian’s focus is on contemplative prayer, or what he calls ‘still prayer.’ He writes:

[T]he still prayer I have called mediation is in its simplest form an attempt to make oneself accessible to God—willing to hear what God may convey, or act as God might direct. In other words, meditation really means waiting upon God—open, vulnerable, focused, susceptible, listening and ready. In meditation one tries to be passive and willing to be communicated with. It is the great pinnacle of spiritual life and devout experience (82-83).

Father John-Julian favors the contemplative tradition; however he also describes the proper orientation to prayer in general. Prayer is not about getting God to do what you want (for yourself or someone else) but an orientation toward relationship with the Divine (7-8).  Fr. John-Julian warns against praying for particular outcomes and instead advises  us to pray that we may recognize the will of God (11). Without prescribing a ‘prayer method.’ John-Julian orients us towards communion with the God that is beyond our comprehension.

Along the way, John Julian identifies the various ‘veils’ which impede the development of still prayer. These include:our emotions, boredom, our frenetic activity, expectations, obscurity which sees God as ‘extrinsic to us,’ methodology, ignorance, consciousness of sin, romance, the mistaken notion of spiritual privacy, projection, an over-literalness,  and a desire for practicality. John-Julian draws heavily on Julian of Norwich (for which his order is named), and the English Mystical tradition (i.e. The Cloud of Unknowing) He is gently critical of charismatic, and evangelical traditions that are overly pragmatic and individualistic.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book and certainly Fr. John-Julian names the heart of true prayer—unity with God. I found this book challenging and underlined a number of passages. As an admittedly low-church evangelical, I am implicated in many of his critiques. There are certainly times where I have been more “results-driven” in prayer than I have been trying to commune with God. I also am some one who is inspired by the contemplative tradition but find it temperamentally difficult (I’m a hyper-extrovert). However in both cases I find myself challenged and drawn into the greater depth of true prayer through these letters.

I recommend this book for those who desire to grow in their prayer life (if there is no desire, you probably aren’t ready for this). Father John-Julian is a wise guide, and I find this short book one of the best contemporary summaries of contemplative prayer. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

 

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