Adventures in Prayer: A Carmelite Trilogy.
Noel Dermot O'Donoghue has been described as "one of the most perceptive spiritual writers of our time." Those who have read any of his previous works will heartily agree with this statement. His latest work, Adventures in Prayer, is decidedly one of his finest. It is a series of reflections on the lives of three prominent mystic-saints: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux.
As with the number of mystics, the book is divided into three equal portions, further subdivided into three aspects of the saints' lives, each of which deserves special attention. And while the accounts of each of the saints is lucid and clear, all of the stories are interrelated and interwoven. Fr. O'Donoghue also draws on an array of other materials as well, from St. Francis of Assisi and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing to more contemporary figures, such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. From beginning to end, his style is engaging, adventurous and even poetic: the hallmark of a master.
Teresa of Avila
In the first portion of the book on St. Teresa of Avila, Fr. O'Donoghue quickly identifies her as a "woman of vision." Yet, as O'Donoghue reminds us, prayer can be dangerous, and all who engage in the contemplative way are often misunderstood or marginalized. Such was certainly the case with Teresa and her Discalced Carmelite movement, who were often treated as Catholic "Quakers." Nonetheless, Teresa learns about classical forms of prayer before developing her own style of mystical prayer. It is here, in this richly textured commentary that the author gently leads us into discussions about the "art of detachment," becoming "lost" to the world and experiencing "heaven in ordinaire," to use George Herbert's phrase. Again though, as Teresa and the author both remind us: along the path to mystical prayer, there is no "quick fix" (or dry-eyed locutions), only the "gift of tears." Devoted to prayer as she is, Teresa is here portrayed in all her ordinariness--a womanly woman. And yet paradoxically, as if in concert with the polyphony of Tallis' Spem in Alium, we encounter a truly God-intoxicated woman.
St. John of the Cross
In the next section of the book, we turn to the "man of fire," St. John of the Cross. Doubtless, many readers will have heard of the "dark night of the soul," as it was first coined by John. In the mid-16th century, this was how John began his vocation--ironically at the hands of his own monastic brethren. Yet out of this pathos came an immense longing for God, akin to the Old Testament Song of Songs. Eventually, his pain bore fruit in the form of poetry, the Spiritual Canticles. In John's longing for union with God, his soul became The Bridal Soul, and mortal life becomes the pilgrim's lament: hurry unto me death. Now as then, the poetry is deeply inspiring, particularly when put to music, as in some of the works of John Michael Talbot. As with St. Teresa, the womanly woman, so too was St. John a manly man. He fully accepted the way of the Cross, in all its terrible beauty. For the reader wishing to deepen and broaden his prayer life, a reflective reading of O'Donoghue's insights on St. John of the Cross is a magnanimous experience: it literally enlarges the soul.
Therese of Lisieux
In the final section of the book, we encounter "a child of the little way:" St. Therese of Lisieux. For at the age of 14 this girl-woman became the prayer-guardian of souls, a spiritually intuitive "soul-mother." O'Donoghue describes hers as "a deep, totally transformative, all consuming desire," and thus an "Act of Consecration to Merciful Love." Yet the 19th century posed its own set of social and theological challenges for the young woman, particularly after she entered the Carmelite convent. She encountered a deep Jansenism in her spiritual teachings, to which she was unaccustomed. This, coupled with the daunting readings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, left her perplexed, yet filled with a spiritual longing nonetheless. Child that she was, she turned to the Holy Scriptures for guidance and inspiration. Faithfully expectant of a good, all-fathering God, she envisioned an approach which sustained her spiritual childhood. Her "little way" is simplicity itself: a total rejection of the God of terror and judgment in favour of the God of love and mercy, and approached with the confidence and trust of a child who is assured of being completely loved.
Fr. O'Donoghue concludes his book with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions--caritas novit eam: charity knows this light. In this short treatise he lucidly describes * the nature and texture of this light, pulling our minds upwards towards that place where illumination and luminosity are present. Here the air literally shines. On this spiritual plateau, it is "the light above the mind" with which he is concerned. For in the final ascent into God, he reminds us, it is love--and only love--which has the power to break through the clouds and darkness of our human understanding to achieve union with God. His visionary account of this love, as experienced in the saints' lives in Adventures in Prayer, has the atmosphere of a quiet fireside chat, coupled with the authority of a spiritual director. Those who aspire to be (or already are) contemplatives in our frenzied world, will find this book to be an immensely affirming experience. It will undoubtedly become a classic of orthodox Christianity.
Fr. O'Donoghue is a Carmelite priest and native of Co. Kerry, Ireland. Until 1988 he was Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and Director of Studies in the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. He has written extensively on Christian mystics, including Mystics for Our Time and On Heaven in Ordinaire. Other highly popular books include The Mountain Behind the Mountain and The Angels Keep Their Ancient Places: Reflections on Celtic Spirituality. He is retired and presently resides in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Rob O'Gorman is a former wilderness instructor/guide, and recently completed graduate studies through the University of Wales, He lives rurally with his family in the Lanark Highlands of eastern Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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