Literary Prayer

Okay, I have a confession to make.

Sometimes I get bored with spiritual writing. That may seem like a crazy foolish thing for me to admit, for after all, I am a “spiritual writer” myself. But it’s true. I can only take so much gentle, kind, inspirational prose about discovering our inner authenticity and learning to let God’s forgiving love transform us so that we can in turn bring compassion and forgiveness to others…. yada yada yada… I believe it all, it’s all true, but sometimes it just gets a little boring. It’s kind of like contemporary Christian music. Some of it (the David Crowder Band leaps to mind) is authentically creative and worthy of repeated listens. But so much of it feels rather constrained by the essential politeness of its message. It may be good, and honest, and true, but it lacks passion, and risk, and danger.

The solution to such boredom, of course, is to make sure we don’t have a steady diet of religious prose (or music). But this doesn’t always have to be an either/or proposition. Sarah Arthur and Paraclete Press have recently produced a wonderful devotional book called At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time — which is, as the title suggests, a collection of literary writings arranged to foster a lively devotional practice. Set in a 29-week cycle (long enough to cover the period from Pentecost until Advent), this book features excerpts of poetry and prose from a wide array of authors, including George Eliot, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy — as well as authors we might more intuitively think of as “spiritual,” like George Herbert, John Donne, Julian of Norwich, George MacDonald, and Dante. The book is set up so that you can use it as a daily devotional, or for a longer, weekly sampling of the literary treasures it contains. Each week has its own contemplative theme: “In the Stillness,” “The Intimacy of Grace,” “Communion of the Body” and so forth. Basically, this is a book for bringing a love for fine writing into your practice of prayer (and vice versa). It’s well worth checking out.

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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.

  • 2breathe2

    How about a good ole fashioned love story to break and refresh the mind too! Any recommendations? :)

  • Mark Nielsen

    Thanks, Carl. A good idea, that book… and a minor peeve of mine that it has taken most believers (and Christian publishers) far too long to recognize the inherent value in honest fiction, mythology, drama, narrative film, and similar material for spiritual development. For where else is the essence of divine and human nature best seen, than in the use of our creativity to explore matters of the soul? Not to mention realistic portrayals of flawed, beautiful, complicated saints and sinners making real choices, with implications for any reader who reads as if looking into a sort of mirror.

    It makes me think of semi-famous French film critic and philosopher Andre Bazin, definitely a Christian, who wrote: “If you want to convey useful information, documentary is an excellent form. But if you want to convey *truth*, use fiction.”

    Thus, my top-of-the-head addendum to your recommendation is a play called “Wit”, about a John Donne scholar facing cancer. Published and first performed about ten years back, then made into a very good made-for-cable film starring Emma Thompson.

    Just one of thousands of examples, old and new, where I have encountered Jesus in my own cathartic response to a work of art. Few works of spiritually-based nonfiction can bring me to that place — for fiction, story, parable and poetry are inherently designed to bypass the rational mind and aim directly at plucking the heartstrings.

  • Mark Nielsen

    One other recollection: the title of that book “At the Still Point”, is actually a reference to one of T.S. Eliot’s longer, Christologically amazing poems. Probably The Four Quartets, though possibly Ash Wednesday (which is shorter, and a fine place to start anyway). Eliot, though not the most accessible of poets, is still the main bridge between all those giant, older literary explorers of the Divine (Dante, Goethe, etc) and the smaller but often more accessible Modern and postmodern practitioners of the craft (David Whyte, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver come to mind at the moment).

  • flamingseed

    For an edgy and challenging bit of spiritual/literary writing, check out the book Brave New Prayers by Hunter Reynolds. Daring, poetic and compassionate pieces that sometimes made me squirm….