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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"At the Still Point" (Sarah Arthur)

TITLE: At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
AUTHOR: Sarah Arthur (compiler)
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011, (256 pages).

This book is poised to become a collector's item. The Christian calendar begins at Advent and four four weeks right through to Christmas, Christians commemorate the birth of Christ. Then comes Lent, which is 40 days before the crucifixion of Christ, and after the resurrection is the Easter season which normally lasts about 7 weeks after Lent. The periods between Christmas and Lent; Pentecost and Advent are understood to be Ordinary Time (Epiphany). This book is written with the objective of letting readers appreciate Ordinary Time using good literature and prayer guides. The 29 weeks of readings are designed for use during the period from Pentecost to Advent. Readings such as prayer guides, meditative readings, provoking thoughts and literary masterpieces, are compiled from writers, philosophers, theologians, from the Early Church to the modern era. Arthur has selected the pieces that tend to focus on helping readers to be worshipful in the reading, meditative on the praying, and to cultivate a more reflective and contemplative mood in a society often thought to be busy, distracting, and downright confusing. She calls the anthology a kind of "moonlit garden" to invite readers to walk the long Ordinary Time period, traversing the full range of spiritual experiences "from conviction to calling, quarreling to awakening, dark nights, redemption, and everything in between." The title of each week's readings is a good reference point on where the author is attempting to invite into. Each week follows a similar structure. There is an opening prayer and Scriptures to be read. There are choice readings from various writers and poets, most of them considered classics or masters of spirituality. There are opportunities to pray and reflect upon the readings. At the end of it all, there is a closing prayer, chosen from some of the best worshipful prose and poems.

Each week, there is a focus on a certain spiritual experience. There is intimacy of grace, calls for persistent praying, as well as cries for mercy. There are also moments of dark despair and pleadings for strengths to endure the harsh middle way. There is also a borrowing of Philip Yancey's title of one of his books, "Rumors of another world," which brings together some glimpses of eternity. What I appreciate is the level of detail and care that Sarah Arthur has put in to remind readers about the Holy Week experience, which is the very core of the Christian faith. It teaches us that even though there are distinct seasons of the Christian Church calendar, all of these remembrances are linked to one another. More importantly, all of them point back to the Person of Christ. This structure roughly parallels the journey of the early disciples who walked with Jesus, watched Jesus suffer, died, and resurrected, started the Church, and maintained the hope for a glorious future kingdom.

I am also amazed by the huge collection of materials that dovetail so well into the theme of each week. Arthur brings together the different writers from different eras, selects their literary pieces, and let them speak for themselves. At the same time, she lets them converse with one another through the minds of the reader. One can read slowly or pace steadily. One can also select a few to read at a time, or to read one large passage in a single sitting. Some of the readings are intentionally brief so that the words are given time to sink in and to initiate ripples of creative thoughts. Many of the writings are from 15th to 21st Centuries. There are the Medieval spiritual writers such as Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, John Donne, and St Francis of Assisi. There are famous 17th to 19th Century writers such as Madam Guyon, George Herbert, Christina Rossetti, Richard Baxter, and Leo Tolstoy. The modern era is also well represented with familiar names like CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Luci Shaw, Frederick Buechner, Wendell Berry, Chiam Potok, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, and many more. With such a collection of well-known writers and the high quality pieces, readers are often challenged to remain at the "still point," to reflect upon life. They are invited to ponder the words and the powerful imagery it paints. They are persuaded not to let the world around us mold us into its hurried and non-stop busyness frame of mind. Instead, the reflective reading and contemplative praying is an antidote that helps us move into an unhurried disposition, and a readiness to stop or pause every once in a while without feeling guilty about it.

Let me give an example of how one can move from activism to reflection. In the chapter on "Growing Good," Arthur begins with an opening prayer that reminds us once again, that "all is done for us." There is no need to worry about things undone, for the most important thing has already been done for us. God has given us life in the Spirit, and has empowered us for goodness. The readings in Romans 5 for example affirms this fact that those in Christ has already been justified by faith through grace. The readings are then placed to help us focus on this act of God accomplished by God already at the cross. Christina Rossetti's prayer reminds us about God having prepared a resting place for our "happy soul." John Keble reflects upon the triumphant glory of God. Richard Crashaw points to the greatest goodness of all: Love.  George Eliot's story tells about how one can accomplish great things for God, even when living a life of obscurity.

I recommend this book highly for people who wants to be refreshed in their prayer life, for people who desire opportunities to reflect upon life in God through the most ordinary of circumstances, for those who want to be more contemplative as they live day to day, meet person to person, and to let the book accompany them as they progress through a spectrum of emotions.

If you are planning to go on a spiritual retreat, and wonder what you need to bring, let me recommend at least three things. First, bring a Bible. Second, carry along a hymnal or a book of spiritual songs. This book is a strong recommendation for the third. It is that good.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Paraclete Press without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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