A Good Prayer-Book of a Kind: A book review

O'Connor The short life of Flannery O’Connor unleashed some of the greatest fiction the world has known. Writing as a Southerner and a Christian, her characters showcase both the grotesque and the operations of God’s grace. But what are the Spiritual disciplines that nourished the spirituality of the artist and gave O’Connor her unique literary vision? What was her prayer life like? What insights can we gain from following her practice?

In the Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell has drawn together a unique prayer-book which is both a devotional work and an exploration of the prayers, poems and poetry that inspired O’Connor. As O’Donnell describes her project:

It is an attempt to assemble from materials O’Connor would have invested with authority and significance a prayer book she would not find “awful,” but instead, might see as a helpful guide for those seeking a language and format for prayer that places ancient practice within a contemporary context. It also provides an opportunity to engage the rich theological imagination of Flannery O’ Connor, to come into daily contact with her special mode of holiness–one that is grounded in an unswerving love of Christ and characterized by her extraordinary clarity of vision and a fearless commitment to her craft as a means of accomplishing good in the world(12).

The result is a window into O’Connor’s practice and exploration of various themes which are important in her work. The main part of the prayer-book is comprised of the daily office pre-Vatican II Catholic’s would have likely practiced, organized around various themes. Each day’s prayer, includes prime and compline (morning and evening prayer), various Bible readings, a ‘lectio divina’ on a passage from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters and suggestions for further reading on the day’s theme from O’Connor’s ficiton. Here are the topics for each day:

  • Sunday: The Christian Comedy
  • Monday: The False Self & the True Self
  • Tuesday: Blindness and Vision
  • Wednesday: Limitation and Grace
  • Thursday: The Mystery of the Incarnation
  • Friday: Facing the Dragon
  • Saturday: Revelations & Resurrections

The second part of this book, draws together poetry, prayers, poems and quotations that were important to O’Connor (culled from her essays, lectures and letters). These offer a window into the things that O’Connor valued and the spirituality that nourished her.

Angela O’Donnell, herself a poet and professor at Fordham University is well acquainted with O’Connor’s works (having taught literature classes focused on her). What I liked best about this book is the ways in which the prayer practice commended here reveals a fresh Flannery O’Connor and this is testament to O’Donnell’s genius. Of course as protestant and a Northerner, some of O’Connor’s spirituality remains opaque to me, but I found enough here that provoked me to reflection and prayer. This book is a welcome addition to the library of any O’Connor fan (and if you aren’t one, it may introduce you to her).

This book was provided for me by Paraclete Press in exchange for this review.

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.

A little more Orthodox than normal (A Prayer book review?)

Prayer Book of the Early ChristiansWhen 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!