Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reviews: Praying In The Cellar and A School of Prayer

Having written lately about concerns over our country and the coming election, it’s probably a coincidence that in my morning meditations lately I have been reading two books about prayer.  The first, Praying in the Cellar by Anthony Delisi, was recommended by my friend, Barb.  The second, A School of Prayer by Pope Benedict XVI was recommended by my local Catholic book store. 
Anthony Delisi is the founder of the Lay Cistercian movement, aimed at bringing monastic spirituality into the lives of lay people around the world.  Based in a monastery near Atlanta, he has spent many of his 80 years in Africa, and in this book he reflects back on his life and the lessons he has learned.  He uses his early-morning prayer time to imagine himself in the cellar of his childhood home, to enter a dark quiet place where he can pray, “the place where I as steward of the goods of my person, can be at the sensitive center of my life.”

“Once we enter into the cellar and expose our fears to the Father, strange things may indeed happen.  Slowly we become aware of the nearness of the God who loves us.”  Strange things indeed happened as I read this book.  It was an unusual book, compared to most of my readings.  It really didn’t educate me in any new insights of my faith, nor seem to bring me closer to God, but it did resonate with me nonetheless.  I found Delisi’s simple reflections on his childhood events, and even the cellar itself and the tomatoes and bananas stored there, to be somehow quieting.  It was a peaceful read, although that doesn’t describe it adequately.  Does it teach you how to pray?  Perhaps, but I think it is more just a reading of someone who DOES know how to pray, to see and accept God as part of his life.  It gives me a sense of peace, knowing men such as Delisi exist.   If you wish to find some deep religious insights, this book may bore you --- in a way it bored me!  But I still liked it.
“Once again I find myself in the cellar among the jars, locking myself in.  This door reminds me of another door in Rome, Italy, along the street not far from the Abbey of San Anselmo.  Tourists peep through the keyhole to get a glimpse of the dome of Saint Peter’s in the distance.  If I look through the keyhole of the door in this dark, cool room, am I able, with faith, to see the gates of heaven and the heavenly Father peeping down at me in this room?  Does this make sense?”  A thought leading to a memory leading to a reflection, those are the words Fr. Delisi writes.  I found looking at his praying, his journaling of his prayers, to give me peace in my morning meditations.  And after reading a section I could put the book down and float into my own memories and reflections --- not a bad thing.
“Papa bought the cheapest olive oil from the third pressing.  Today, olive oil is advertised as ‘virgin’ or ‘extra virgin.’  It could even be widowed, but as long as it is olive oil, it is good enough for me.”  Fr. Delisi is a simple man, as are his prayers:  I pray, we pray, Our Father who art in heaven … and in this cellar with the tomato sauce, preserves, and wine.  You are with us, and we fear no evil.  To You be praise and honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.
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In the spring of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI began offering a catechesis on prayer at his regular Wednesday talks in St. Peter’s Square.  This book, A School of Prayer, is the text of 31 of those talks.  After reading Fr. Delisi’s book on prayers, I picked this one off my bookshelf and began reading.  Thus far I’ve only read a few of the talks our Pope has given, but I can already see the same wisdom and simplicity I found in so many of Benedict’s previous books and talks.  Compared to the depths of JPII, Benedict speaks more simply.  He makes simple statements, but they give you pause, as you realize the depth of what they mean.  And he explains simply, as if talking to a little child.  The depths of philosophy and theology?  Yes, but presented so clearly that anyone can understand.
In his talks, Pope Benedict walks through the prayers found in the Bible, God talking to his children, starting with those in the Old Testament (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah), and then moving on to the Psalms, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and finally he gives us his thoughts on differing types of prayers.  “Dear friends, in these examples of prayer of different epochs and civilizations emerge the human being’s awareness of his creaturely condition and his dependence on Another superior to him who is the source of all good.  The human being prays because he cannot fail to wonder about the meaning of his life, which remains obscure and discomforting if it is not put in relation to the mystery of God and his plan for the world.”
“Man knows that by himself he cannot respond to his own fundamental need to understand.  However much he is deluded and still deludes himself that he is self-sufficient, he experiences his own insufficiency.  Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and truth which impel him towards the Absolute.  And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God; he knows he can pray to him.  St. Thomas Aquinas defines prayer as ‘an expression of man’s desire for God.’  … In prayer, man considers himself and his situation before God and experiences being a creature in need of help, incapable of obtaining on his own the fulfillment of his life and his hope.”
At the end of each talk, the pope speaks directly to his listeners.  This is the concluding instruction after his first talk:  “Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn to pause longer before God, who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, let us learn to recognize in silence, in our hearts, his voice that calls us and leads us back to the depths of our existence, to the source of life, to the source of salvation, to enable us to go beyond the limitations of our life and to open ourselves to God’s dimension, to the relationship with him, which is Infinite Love.” 
I’ve written in recent days about the need to pray for our country, to place our petitions at the feet of God.  This is a good thing, and he DOES hear our prayers.  These two books go into deeper dimensions of prayer, beyond what we want, and into a conversation with God.  What does HE want?  What is he quietly giving to us, without our even asking?  By his words and examples, what does he expect of us, his children?  These two books open prayer into greater dimensions, beyond the concerns for ourselves.  Fr. Delisi demonstrates how we can go into a quiet place, and God will help us see him in our lives.  Benedict goes deeper, and demonstrates how God acted in the lives of the saints, and how he touched the lives of his people; how he loved them.  Both books, with their short chapters, are excellent for growing in prayer, in opening ourselves up for conversations with God.  In this Year of Faith in the Catholic Church, these books are practical examples of how we can grow in our faith. 
Whether you think your life is blessed, or just one trial after another, there is one thing I can guarantee you: that there will be trials ahead.  These books demonstrate how you can effectively deal with those trials --- not alone.
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It took many years for me to learn how to pray.  In the beginning, there were many hours of darkness, and the feeling of being alone --- kind of like those prayers in the cellar.  But I persisted.  And there were also many times of consolations, including those times when I finally understood the prayers answered in Scripture, even as Pope Benedict described.  These were all part of my experiences in growing in prayer. 
In the beginning, it almost seemed a chore to pray --- I even bought the watch with its thoroughly irritating buzzer to remind me when to pray (even as I now set my phone alarm at 12 and 6, times to remind me to re-learn the Angelus prayer).  Yes, learning to pray did take some persistence.  And I thank God for those small consolations along the way, those little “aha! I see You there!” moments as described in Scripture.  And the even much softer said, “aha, I see … no, I feel … I, uh, …, … I know You are there” moments.  Even now, I praise Him for those consolations, those prayers answered, and those moments when I just KNEW He was with me, especially in my sorrows.
One of the greatest blessings given me, over the years, was His leading me to a church which had regular Eucharistic adoration and, through others, encouraging me to spend time alone with Him there.  It was there, in those quiet hours that we grew to be friends.  Now, like lovers holding hands watching a starlit night, we need not speak.  Like friends reading poetry aloud by the light of the fireplace, we understand.  And like children being tucked into bed in a warm home, we know we love one another.  Prayer, especially in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, is all those things to me.  But even when I am not there, I see Him in the eyes of those he puts in my path, in the words they say, and in the love and consolations I offer them, His.
But, where do His blessings to me come from?  I know me most intimately, and I am certainly not one deserving of any love or recognition or trust, especially from a God.  And yet sometimes He uses me, for reasons I know not why, and even in ways I know not how.  He uses me because I, in confidence told Him it’s okay to do so.  In our quiet moments, I told Him that what I have is His.  I told Him we are friends, and that I love Him.  I told Him I trust in Him.
That’s what friends do.  That is what prayer makes us.  That’s what gives me so much peace --- knowing I am not alone.  He’s always there when I call, and most especially, even when I do not. 
You will seek me,
and when you seek with your whole heart,
you will find me.
--- You will pray to me,
and I will listen to you.
-- Jer 29:13

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