The size of this small volume belies the depth and scope of its subject matter, offering as it does a comprehensive overview of a variety of, yet also intrinsically linked, ways of praying. Written by a Jesuit, it contains within it many of the hallmarks of his spiritual tradition but is free of much of the Ignatian ‘jargon’.
Indeed, St Ignatius of Loyola gets barely a mention, and his Spiritual Exercises none at all, until the concluding chapters. Perhaps this is to broaden the book’s appeal beyond Ignatian circles, or simply to put its contents into the wider context of prayer in general. This it certainly does, and is a rewarding treasury, accessible to any praying person who is drawn to silence as the place of encounter with God.
The book is laid out as a series of exercises, beginning appropriately with some fundamental basics – how to still ourselves, either as preparatory for prayer or as a simple prayer of companionable silence with God as described in the opening chapter. This stillness can sometimes feel increasingly out of reach in our high speed age but steps are here outlined which can be done anywhere to create the silence and stillness where we may feel God’s presence.
It is this awareness of God’s presence that is the bedrock of prayer and is fostered throughout the book. Subsequent exercises encourage the practice of looking back over one’s day, or one’s life, or one’s past experiences of pain or bereavement, or decisions to be made, all with a view to being aware of where God has been acting in the past, is with us now and is leading us forward into the future.
This all requires great attentiveness, and the practices of reviewing one’s prayer and keeping a reflective journal are outlined as aids to such awareness. In all of this, prayer is presented not so much as something one does or says, but essentially as a relationship with God, who loves us and is intimately connected with and concerned with every aspect of our lives.
Key to this relationship is encounter with God through Scripture, and two ways of using Scripture for prayer – meditative reading, or ‘Lectio Divina’, and using our imaginations to immerse ourselves in a Gospel passage – are explained concisely yet deeply, with several suggested passages with which to pray. There is therefore no excuse to refer to these two chapters just the once!
Indeed, the entire book is one to be pondered and savoured, and returned to time and again. It is to be prayed with, not just read, and for anyone wanting to take the exercises further, the concluding chapters offer helpful suggestions for retreats and further reading. The book may therefore become a springboard for a person to delve deeper into the rich waters of Ignatian spirituality, though it remains valuable in its own right. It surely deserves to stay close at hand, either by one’s Bible or in one’s pocket – or buy two, and do both!
We talk with Fr Paul Nicholson SJ, author of Pathways to God, about the importance of silent prayer and how practice it today, in this noisy, busy world. Listen to our podcast: