Naming the Son: a book review

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is well known for his cookbooks including Twelve Months of Monastery Cookbooks.  But he isn’t just a monastery chef, he is a Benedictine monk well versed in the Rule’s rhythm of work and prayer and the Great Tradition. In Christ the Merciful he skillfully weaves biblical, liturgical, monastic, ecclesiastical  and patristic sources together, providing forty-seven mediations on the many names of Jesus (not all are names, but titles, or modes of addressing and understanding Christ’s significance).  Brother Victor contends, “When we meditate on his names, Christ inspires us to revise our expectations of him. He invites us to move beyond our self-centered ideas of who we think he should be and focus instead on his ever-changing, ever-renewed presence in our lives” (introduction, ix).

christ-the-mercifulThese names for Christ are derived both from biblical source material and centuries of Christian reflection on who Christ is for us. While Br. Victor is firmly rooted in his own Benedictine tradition he draws generously on the insights of the ancient church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Christ’s names are organized into five sections. In Part I, Brother Victor reflects on ‘Christ in Images, Names and Symbols’ Here, Br. Victor explores Christ’s divine and messianic titles—what it means to call Christ, God, the prophets’ fulfillment, the Messiah, the Incarnate One, Our Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, Lord, Son of the Living God, Good Shepherd, Door and Keeper of the Gate. Part II  explores Christ in the gospel tradition, tracing the life of Jesus from Messianic hope and his Bethlehem birth, through His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Part III describes some of the titles of Christ in the Byzantine (Eastern) tradition such as Christ the Pantakrator, And Christ the Philanthropos (Lover of Mankind). Part IV delves into the place of Christ in the Monastic tradition, (including the Jesus prayer and the role of Christ in a monk’s daily life and devotion). Part V explores Christ in the Human Family (Jesus the child of Mary and Joseph and his relationship to us, the poor, the angels and saints, and the Wisdom of God). At the end of the book Br. Victor has three appendixes exploring the prayers and mystical traditions of Syria, Russia and Romania, respectively.

Each of the meditations in this volume begins with relevant scripture passages, several pages of reflections from Br. Victor, and they usually close with a poetic prayer from a saint, a liturgy, or other writings from the Church’s rich theological tradition. Given the breadth of images and names and the thoughtful coherence of whole book, means that it is impossible to read through these meditations without enlarging your understanding of God’s grandeur revealed in Christ. Christians of all stripes (Catholic, Orthodox or low-roving Protestants) will find these reflections Christ centered and worshipful.

This isn’t to say that Br. Victor is exhaustive in his reflections on Christ’s many names. He doesn’t reflect on a couple of my favorite of Christ’s biblical titles, “Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners (Luke 7:34), Great Physician (Luke 5:31), or Christ our Brother (Hebrews 2:11). His discussion of Jesus as Lord is apolitical, emphasizing the spiritual meaning but not Christ’s challenge to empire (as N.T. Wright reminds us, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not). These omissions do not diminish Br. Victor’s fine prose. Christ is bigger than any of our reflections and all of us see now in part.

Because of the length of this book (forty-seven chapters) and its Christological focus, this would be a wonderful book to read throughout the season of Lent. Though it could really be read at anytime, by those who are interested in contemplating the Christ and  live their life in Him. I give this four stars

Note: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

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


Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe  (another book of his on prayer) than God in the Alley. But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★

A biography of Julian of Norwich (a book review)

Julian of Norwich-Amy Frykholm As anyone who has delved into Julian will probably tell you, there is very little about her life that we can know for certain. We know she was a fourteenth century anchorite and that her Showings(or revelations) are universally praised for their beauty and depth. Rowan Williams has said that “Julian’s Revelations may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English Language.” Yet when we try to untangle the details of her personal life, we have scant documentary evidence about who this Julian of Norwich really is.

In Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm does the impossible and presents us a sensitive and sympathetic vision of the beloved anchorite. Through eleven ‘windows’ she draws on various passages from Julian’s revelations and sketches a portrait of her, placing in her in her historical context. She is able to show, convincingly, the backdrop of the plague, the culture of Norwich and Julian’s religious education, and devotion to the life of prayer. At times Frykholm gives a carefully reasoned account, at other times this book is an imagined retelling, but in either case her picture of Julian is thoroughly realistic and judicious.

I found the picture that Julian that emerges here thoroughly compelling and it makes me want to return again to Julian’s Revelations so that I can read it with fresh eyes. Julian’s devotional and prayer life is compelling and makes me want to approach prayer with the same attention and expectancy. And so I heartedly recommend this book to three sorts of readers:

  • Those who love Julian will appreciate Frykholm’s prose for the ways she lovingly, imaginatively and sensitively handles Julian and giving us a glimpse of her character. It is a beautiful book.
  • Those who have attempted to read Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love and have found her too difficult and ethereal. This is not a commentary on the Revelations, but it does draw on material of Julian’s and contextualizes it. I love Julian and found that reading this book helps me see aspects of Julian with fresh eyes.
  • Lastly, I would recommend this to those who would love to read Julian but are looking for a short simple introduction of her first. This book would serve you well.

In case you missed it, I am recommending this book to anyone who has even a remote interest in Julian because it is readable, well-researched, imaginative and sympathetic to Julian.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. I know this review sounds overly positive, but they didn’t tell me to say nice things. The book is just that good.