Page 15, 26th August 2005

26th August 2005
Page 15
Page 15, 26th August 2005 — Spiritual Books Francis Phillips

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Spiritual Books Francis Phillips

Prayers for This Life edited by Christopher Howse, Continuum £16.99 Those who like to ramble down the byways of literature sometimes play a private parlour game: what passages that have startled them and stayed wedged in the memory would they collect together for moments of reflection. Christopher Howse, who has edited several anthologies on spiritual themes, is an expert in this field. Erudite and amusing, his collections always reflect his quirky tastes, his love for the English poets and his disdain for the “shallow kind of spiritual globe-trotting”.

Thus there is no New Age tinkering with Tibetan prayer-wheels here. Divided into three parts, the anthology spans 2,000 years of classic texts, including Latin translations from Augustine and Aquinas, some much-loved hymns and “tea-towel prayers”.

I suspect Howse has a particular fondness for Traherne and The Book of Common Prayer. He also has a soft spot for Christina Rossetti. Not least among the book’s pleasures are the notes to every entry: Christina Rossetti is “an uncomfortable writer who lived an uncomfortable life among unreliable pre-Raphaelites and aged aunts”. There are fascinating snippets of information; I now know the meaning of “impetrative” prayer and that Columbus’s sailors sang the Salve Regina on deck on Saturday evenings.

I was dismayed to discover that St Francis’s “Make me an instrument of Thy peace” was actually composed in 1912 and surprised to find three prayers by that master of match-making, Jane Austen. My favourite, among many contenders, is Christopher Smart’s homage to his cat, Jeoffrey. Howse is both a bookman and a man of prayer; his anthology is a treat for all seasons.

Romano Guardini: Spiritual writings selected by Robert Krieg, Alban Books £9.99 Romano Guardini, 18851968, born in Italy, spent all his priestly life in Germany. As an influential mentor of Pope Benedict XVI his writings are grad ually becoming better known; the former Joseph Ratzinger learnt from him that “the essence of Christianity... is a Person: Jesus Christ”. This book offers a useful – though necessarily brief – introduction to his prolific output: over 60 books and 100 essays on every aspect of faith.

In reaction to a detached scholastic approach, Guardini, who lectured at Berlin University from 1923-39, sought a creative Christian response to culture manifested in art, music and literature, and to overcome the divide between religious language and secular discourse. His theology of Christian humanism aroused suspicion in the Church, yet by the time of the Second Vatican Council he had become a significant hidden presence.

The excerpts here reveal him as a most attractive and accessible writer, his theological reflections mediated through an intense prayer life and reverence for every aspect of God’s creation.

He had a humble recognition of the human flaws of the Church, but “we may not disregard the visible Church in favour of an ideal Church”, he warned.

In 1905 he experienced a crisis of faith, writing a classic account of the surrender of his intellect and his discovery of a personal God. Each chapter concludes with a quotation from Guardini’s own published prayers. These alone make a perusal worthwhile, so devout and direct is his address: “If I were to depart from you, I would be separated from myself... strengthen my inner self to go immediately against everything that would separate me from you.” Beginning Again by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Madonna House Publications £4 (Thorpe Lane, Robin Hood’s Bay, YO22 4TQ; Tel: 01947 880169) Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), founder of Madonna House Apostolate, communities where lay people and priests live and work together to provide Christian hospitality to others, wrote these brief meditations on the Sacrament of Reconciliation over a period of 50 years, from the 1930s to the 1980s. Edited by Martin Nagy after her death, they now include relevant passages from the new Catechism.

Born and brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia, the author’s reflections show an invigorating Russian influence. In Russia Confession was called “the kiss of Christ”, repentance was known as “a bright sadness” and Russians would pray for the “gift of tears”. Catherine, who converted from the Orthodox Church to Catholicism in 1919, retains this vivid simplicity of approach.

For her, Confession is the miraculous moment of “beginning again”. After reading this inspiring little book you can understand why the saints did not have to be dragged unwillingly to this school of love. The author deals briskly with the notion of a “guilt complex” – our Lady Macbeth-like compulsion to rehearse past sins; “Why remember sins that are forgiven?” she asks.

The author’s own love for Christ, mediated in the sacrament through “an ordinary man, fat or thin, with teeth or without teeth” (not something one normally notices on such occasions, I would have thought) is communicated with such passionate conviction that it would convert the most reluctant user of Confession.

The magisterial extracts from the Catechism sit uneasily beside Catherine’s frank and fervent voice, but this is a small criticism: “Confession is such a wonderful thing that everybody should be rushing there” is her message and, unlike psychotherapy, it’s free, cogent and effective.

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