Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice
Richard W Chilson
Category: Prayer and Poetry
If ever there was a book you could judge by its cover, this is probably it: an attractively presented and fascinating exploration of prayer across multiple religious traditions. Taking in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Paganism and Sikhism, it draws upon a common thread of spirituality and seeks out our common ground in an awareness of "the other", in recognition of a spiritual reality that transcends the physical plane: in a word, God.
There is a burgeoning demand in today's world — and it appears to be more than just the western world — for a spirituality-to-go, a fast-food approach to faith where religion is regarded as just another hobby to be fitted in around work, family life and everything else. This book essentially invites us to pause, to set aside the frenetic activity, to consider ourselves in the light of eternity and discover a deeper well of spirituality somewhere at the core of our being.
There is a logical progression through the book: an introduction asking what it is that distinguishes us as human beings from other living things, a short consideration of who we are as we pray, followed by a longer exploration of ideas about the God — or more accurately, perhaps, the concept of God — to whom we pray. A brief history of prayer examines traditions that have emerged within the different faiths, leading into an exercise meditating upon Islam's ninety-nine names for God.
Themes, times, places, words and the use of our bodies in prayer: all of these and more are examined from a variety of angles, opening up avenues of convergence between and seeking insights from within the different faith traditions, with exercises to accompany each section. In the section on the body in prayer, for example, we are encouraged to draw together the asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga's "Salute to the Sun" with the Lord's Prayer, establishing harmony between body and spirit.
All of this, however, is offered without suggesting a further step: towards a faith commitment; rather, it seems, any faith will do. Here, I think, is this book's major weak point: prayer is like breathing; without it we die — but breathing in the wrong atmosphere is just as deadly as not breathing at all. And to those of us who know the distinctives of our own faiths, and respect the distinctives of others, this sort of level playing field approach raises more questions than it answers.
God is certainly at work in all who seek him and there is much that faith communities can and surely must learn from one another — but do all roads lead to God? Having moved away from a fast-food faith, does replacing it with a supermarket style pick'n'mix approach — which is what we appear to have here — make any more sense of our spiritual hunger? Has God, as Christians believe, revealed himself uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth? And if so, can prayer practices that disregard Jesus be considered equally valid?
This is a book that will undoubtedly go down well in the Spirituality or Mind, Body & Spirit sections of any mainstream bookstore, but its panreligious perspective would be unlikely to be well received in many Christian bookshops, particularly those of an evangelical persuasion. In its affirmation of the universality of human spirituality and the centrality of prayer, this is an excellent book: it offers fascinating insights and encourages openness; but in its implicit denial of Christian distinctives — or indeed of any religious distinctives — it presents would-be pilgrims with only a vague sense of the numinous and no clear sense of direction for the journey.
Phil Groom, June 2006
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Ave Maria Press | Order from www.christianbookshops.org
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