Praying in the Cellar

Praying in the Cellar: A Guide to Facing Your Fears and Finding God
(A Voice from the Monastery Series)
By Anthony DeLisi, O.C.S.O.
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005
Review by Carl McColman

Okay, first a disclaimer: not only have I known Fr. Anthony for over a year now, but I work for him (he’s one of the monks in charge of the Abbey Store, where for my day job I manage the website and do marketing) and he is also a spiritual father of mine, since I have (as of April 1) become a novice of the Lay Cistercians at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. So I suppose it is with fear and trembling that I dare to review this book (I guess if I didn’t like it, I would have just kept my mouth shut). But thankfully, I do like this book — on several levels. For starters, it is simply a pleasant, enjoyable read. But on another level it’s an unusual and distinctive glimpse into the life of prayer as experienced by an American Trappist monk, while it also functions as a singular memoir of a distinctive life of faith.

The title is a take-off of Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (NIV) Father Anthony discerns that the room into which we must go to pray in secret exists, in fact, within our own heart and soul: and is often a “room” of the memory. So in his case, he retreats, courtesy of his mind’s eye, into the cellar of the home where he grew up, in order to cultivate his life of prayer. And so the book becomes a lyrical dialogue between themes and passages from scripture, vivid memories from throughout Fr. Anthony’s life, and his present-day prayer (most often recorded during the early morning silent time in the Abbey church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit). In this book, he does not attempt to explicitly teach the reader how to pray (although a brief epilogue offers a few observations on the nature of contemplative prayer); rather, he teaches by example, inviting the reader to “listen in” on his own rich inner colloquy with the Lord.

What I found most memorable about this book had nothing to do with the kind of dry (and all too often insufferable) didacticism that marks most books on prayer. Instead, I came away with an appreciation for Sicilian cooking (although I think I’ll pass on the homemade sausage), a warm appreciation of a close-knit immigrant family during the first decades of the twentieth century, and an awe-inspiring sense of the challenges facing both monks and laypersons in Africa today. All of this comes courtesy of Fr. Anthony’s homespun remembrances of significant (or not-so-significant) moments throughout a life fully lived. The horror of a public Nigerian execution, the poignancy of receiving a “Dear John” letter from a college sweetheart, and the fear engendered when a family member ran afoul of the Mafia all come vividly alive in the unadorned prose of this book. But what’s important is how each of these memories becomes yet another jumping-off place for Fr. Anthony’s continual life of prayer. As a result, Praying in the Cellar quietly leads the reader to grasp one of the most important lessons that Christian spirituality can teach us: that a “life of prayer” is just as much about life as it is about prayer.

Rounding out the book are several pages of discussion questions that individuals can use for journaling about their prayer life, or a small prayer group could use for shared reflection.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.