Praying Foolish Prayers: a prayer book review

This week, is St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day (October 4th), the Medieval saint and celebrated founder of the Franciscan order. Francis was a holy fool—a self-styled subversive of the wisdom of his age. Drawing inspiration from Jesus, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13), and the professional fools of the middle ages, Francis, and his early follower, brother Juniper, produced a spirituality that invited ridicule from wise, the rich, and the powerful because it called the values of society into question. In speaking of fools, Jon Sweeney writes:

it was often the hired fool, dressed in motley silliness, juggling and telling stories, who was allowed to make jokes at the expense of the mighty. A common man or woman might not sare to say things that a fool could say with impunity. A fool was one who flouted conventions, poked fun at niceties and got away with it because he was feebleminded (either pretending, or in reality). They were often regarded as medieval prophets who are able to see or understand things that other could not. Francis and Juniper appreciated these fools and emulated them when they became as Francis himself put it, “Jugglers for God” (Introduction, xix).

the-st-francis-holy-fool-prayer-bookJon Sweeney is an independent scholar, publisher and editor. He has written, translated, edited and annotated several volumes about Francis and the early Franciscans, including Francis and Clare: a True StoryFrancis of Assisi in His Own Words: The Essential Writings; Light in the Dark Ages: the Friendship of Francis and Clare; The Road to Assisi (annotated edition of Paul Sabatier’s biography of Francis), and The Complete St. Francis.  The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book is the third of Sweeny’s Franciscan prayer books (along with the St. Francis Prayer Book and the St. Clare Prayer Book). What makes this volume unique is the way it picks up on this holy fool, subversive element in the early Franciscan movement.

This is a pocket-sized prayer book, and the heart of it is a week’s worth of prayers—The Daily Office for Holy Fools(Part 3).  However, before Sweeney gets to the Office, he includes an introduction on the concept of holy fool, a section of inspiration, examining the holy fool theme in the life of Francis and Brother Juniper (part 1), and a section introducing the format for the morning and evening prayers (part 2). Sweeney also includes occasional prayers for fools (part 4), and four stories of Brother Juniper from The Little Flowers (part 5).

The Daily Office for Holy Fools is composed of morning and evening prayers, each beginning with a simple prayer of intention, and incorporating silences, readings from the gospels, psalms, Hebrew prophets and the New Testament, an early Franciscan saying and a spiritual practice, relating to the theme of that day’s prayer(16). The themes and intents for the week include:

  1. Sunday: The wisdom of foolishness
  2. Monday: The strength of powerlessness
  3. Tuesday: There is joy in forgiveness
  4. Wednesday: The humble are blessed
  5. Thursday: The pure in heart are blessed
  6. Friday: Folly is another name for righteousness
  7. Saturday: True Wisdom brings peace and justice

I incorporated this prayer book into my devotional life through last week. I thought the scriptural passages chosen were meaningful and I enjoyed attempting the suggested spiritual practices. I failed at day one (the wisdom of foolishness) when Sweeney suggested:

Today, alone, somewhere outdoors, try preaching to the birds. If it happens to be winter and there are no birds to be found where you are, preach to the squirrels. Begin by speaking silently, if you prefer in your mind. But stand before them and express yourself from your heart. Record how it felt. Do it again tomorrow (29).

For several days I saw nothing creaturely I could practice such foolishness on. No birds, no squirrels, nothing creepy, crawly. Only flies, and I didn’t feel as though I could preach to them with a flyswatter in my hand. Commending them to God before ending their lives seemed more Pulp Fiction than Brother Sun, Sister Moon. 

Another example, here was the spiritual practice commended as part of the Tuesday evening prayer:

Some of us are simply not good at allowing joy to fill us. (I count myself in this camp, much of the time.) Perhaps we were taught to be more circumspect, not  to easily show our feelings. For a few minutes, as long as you are able, stretch your arms wide and hold your palms facing out as if you might catch a huge beach ball that’s about to be thrown your direction. Close your eyes. Then, catch it! (44)

I did this while lying on my bed last Tuesday. My wife walked in the room seeing my arms spread wide. This is the conversation we had:

Her, looking at my arms: Are you trying to block me from getting in bed.

Me: no.

Her: What are you doing? Why are your arms out like that?

Me: I’m catching a giant beach ball.

Her: You are like one of our children. 

And that’s how I knew I did it right.

Other practices were more straightforwardly applicable, though not easy (e.g. laying down defensiveness, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, kneeling for prayer, wearing something ridiculous and not taking ourselves so seriously, giving extravagantly to someone you know in need, and going where God’s love compels us). In general, Sweeney’s holy fool practices emphasize the playful more than the prophetic, though clearly there is a connection between the two.

This is a fun little prayer book. Because it is a week’s worth of prayers, it can be used to either augment or replace your regular devotional practice for a week, or prayed through regularly for a season. What I appreciate about the whole holy fool idea, is the way God works through unexpected people, far from the center of power, to subvert the system and bring about the newness of God’s kingdom. These prayers (and stories) poke at that and press us in the holy, foolish direction of the kingdom of God. Francis and Juniper (and Sweeny) commend us toward a style of life shaped by the Beatitudes and the witness of Christ. May we all be so foolish! I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of an honest review


Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

I’ve become quite the fan of Jack Levison. I’ve read a couple of his books, Fresh Air and Forty Days with the Holy Spirit [as I write this review, Fresh Air  and Forty Days are both only $1.99 on Amazon!].  Fresh Air is the popular level version of his scholarly tome Filled with the Spirit. Forty Days with the Holy Spirit is a daily devotional with scripture, devotions, space for reflection and prayer. I find his writing both insightful and personally, spiritually enriching. Reading Levison I’ve been blessed with a greater understanding and a deeper experience of the Spirit. His newest book, Holy Spirit I Pray is a book of fifty prayers, which invites readers to  pray to Spirit.

Holy Spirit I Pray by Jack Levison

In his introduction, Levison writes, “A book of prayers to the Holy Spirit, even a slender one is an oddity. While they probably exist, I know of no others. In a modest way this book is unprecedented” (introduction, p.5).  Nevertheless, Levison notes the long tradition of addressing the Spirit in prayer (i.e. liturgical prayers, prayers of Christian saints like Hildegaard of Bingen, or the Cappadocians). So while books of this kind are somewhat novel, praying the prayers in this volume, is joining in the chorus of Christian tradition.

The fifty prayers in this volume are composed by Levison. Each is paired with a relevant Bible passage. These are presented without comment or reflection. Instead Levison uses his introduction to unfold several  concepts to help orient readers toward prayer: the meaning of ruach (Hebrew for Spirit, wind breath), the nature of the Spirit’s filling, and the Spirit’s eagle-like-brooding (vii-xi). These are important concepts which Levison explores more in-depth elsewhere. What he says here is brief, but explicates what you need to know to fully appreciated his prayer-metaphors and the connections he makes. Continue reading Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

On Praying Fixed Hour Prayers

I sit in the cool of the evening listening for the sound of silence. My two-and-a-half year old girl is putting me through the nightly routine of tucking her in, and tucking her in again. And Again (repeat ad naseum). I am tired and have yet to utter my prayers for Vespers and missed my ‘third hour prayer’ (which I pray just after lunch).

Followers of this blog know, I began Ash Wednesday to pray the hours using The Prayer Book of the Early Christians. This has been a fruitful practice, and for the first couple of weeks, I quickly fell into the routine, rising early, allowing an alarm to call me to prayer mid morning, after lunch, in the evening and just before bed.

The third week was more difficult. A couple of times I deviated from routine so that I could complete other necessary tasks, compensating with different prayer times, or forms of prayer. But week three was also when my willpower waned a bit. My alarm would sound and I lurched to prayer less eager than in early weeks. This was around the time I was writing about sloth and a rule of life, so I quickly dismissed my restlessness and went to prayer anyway. However this week my prayer times have been less than fixed. I make it to prayer everyday, and pray the prayers I have promised, but not all of them and not every office.

Praying fixed hour prayers is somewhat of a new experience for me, so I am both trying to extend myself grace for personal failures, and not let myself off too easily from my commitments. It is possible to rush through these prayers, but to do them properly takes time and attention, so it isn’t exactly an easy discipline.

Yet I know, that as I have been able to pray through these prayers, I’ve seen the fruit in my life. I’ve been more patient, more trusting, more discerning, more attentive to God through out my other routines and relationships. I have thought more about how to pray for the world, those in need. And when I have failed to ‘watch and pray’ this too has affected me.

And so despite failures, I keep praying through Lent knowing that these prayers are not merely dull routine but practices shaping me and drawing me further into the heart of God. So my big Lenten confession is this: despite my heroic efforts, I fail at my spiritual routines more than I keep to them, but I always try to fail forward into the kind of life God is calling.

In the time that it took me to write this post, I found my little girl out of her bed, again. She had fallen asleep on the stairs. I picked her up as she lay and carried her back to her bed and tucked her in under her covers. Sometimes when we fail to follow our routines, we find, like me with my little girl, God still gets us to the place we should be.

On praying the hours: Thoughts on my first week of fixed hour prayer

So Having prayed the hours (using the Prayer Book of the Early Christians) for a week, I thought it would be fun to examine some of the things I am learning and experiencing. It took several days for me to see fruit of this discipline and I have several weeks to go. Here is what my experience has looked like so far:

Praying in Time & Space

One of the joys and struggle of this sort of prayer is getting into the rhythm of it. I have more or less stuck with my original plan (7am, 10:30, 1:30, 8pm, 11pm). The morning daytime prayers have been easier for me to do at my scheduled intervals than my evening prayers. My ‘vespers’ prayer I have scheduled for 8pm because that is around the time that the kids are already in bed and I can do it without leaving my wife to handle everybody. However, as any parent probably knows kids do not always go to bed in a timely fashion so there is fluidity with when it happens. My 11pm Compline gets pushed around if I’m watching a movie or doing something with Sarah. It happens sometime before bed.

Each of these prayer times is relatively brief. Matins and Compline are the prayer times which are slightly meatier. The others take about 10-15 minutes each. Vespers is starting to take me slightly longer because I have integrated some of my intercessory prayer lists into saying the litany.

When I have been at home, I have prayed in the corner of the guest room in our house. This is relatively private (kids are kept out) and quiet and out-of-the-way. Although this room is located directly over our bedroom and the first time I said Compline there I woke my wife up who was wondering what I was doing. When I have been away from home all my prayers have happened inside my car in a parking lot.

Praying in Community

One of the things that I’ve learned from this experience is that prayer, even personal prayer, is always communal prayer. I struggled for several days wanting to pray I, me, my, instead of the prayer-book’s we, us, our. The prayer I am most used to is more intimate and personal than this sort of praying but also can be highly individualistic. It’s been good discipline for me to say ‘we’ and pray with the whole Church.

But another way that I have learned that prayer is communal is by seeing how my personal Lent discipline impinges on my family. Despite my efforts to set the times for prayer around my other responsibilities invariably my ‘discipline’ has been an inconvenience on those around me. On the third day of praying, when my wife was doing something and asking me to watch the kids, I told her my plans and when I was to do my prayer time. She dutifully completed her task and said to me, “Is it bad that I find your Lent practice annoying.” Needless to say, that wasn’t my best prayer-time but we talked about it (argued) and I realized that even my own private prayer practice was enabled and supported by my family, even if they weren’t participating with me. We’ve worked this out, and I have tried to be more thoughtful (and proactive) in seeing that my personal practice is not burdensome.

Praying with the Body

As part of this practice, I have tried to pay attention to posture and what I do with my body. I have used a kneeling stool I built and dutifully following instructions to ‘cross myself’ in prayer and bow to the ground after certain phrases. The first couple of days my legs fell asleep during Matins and I could barely walk. It also took several days before the bowing and crossing didn’t feel awkward.

Part of embodying prayer is vocalizing them. I’m still trying to train myself to say the whole pray out loud. This is easier in the day when I am fully awake. I find my Matins prayers drifts towards mental prayer and I begin to read silently, and therefore quicker. Certainly posture, bowing, speaking prayers and crossing myself have helped focus my prayer and keep me on task. Certainly there is symbolic significance to each of these acts, but I find them most helpful in keeping my attention.

Allowing the Psalms to shape my prayers

This has been one of the joys of using a prayer-book. Each day I read a significant chunk of the Psalms. In my prayer book these are not arranged liturgically, nor do they rotate. I pray the same psalms everyday. But it is a good selection and repetition over several days has helped me enter into certain psalms in a new way. Here are the psalms from the various offices (I switched the psalm numbers from the Septuagint numbers to the more familiar numbers from the Masoretic text):

    Matins: Psalm, 20, 21, 3, 38, 63, 88, 103, 143, 11
    First Hour Prayers: 5, 90, 101
    Third Hour Prayers: 17, 25, 51
    Vespers: 104, 141
    Compline 51, 70, 143, 91

Only Psalm 51 is repeated in this list. The total number of psalms recited as part of my daily prayers is twenty. They represent various genres: personal and communal laments, praise, invocation, royal psalms, etc. I have appreciated the richness this has brought to this practice.

There is more about fixed-hour prayer for me to entangle. I love the depth of theological reflection in many of the prayers but some of them do not sit as well for various reasons. I may blog about this later but thus far its been a good experience.