Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
— Kenneth Leech, Prayer and Prophecy
First, a disclaimer: I have been a fan of Ken Leech ever since someone recommended his classic book on spiritual direction, Soul Friend, to me way back in the 1980s. I met Ken on several occasions in the 1990s, and have been honored to have him endorse two of my books. So I imagine I am disposed from the outset to think highly of Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech, since this book gathers together some of the best writing from this singular (and under-appreciated) Anglican contemplative theologian. I am happy to report that this “essential” collection of Ken’s writings lives up to my high expectations. It’s comprehensive, covering Ken’s work from an essay and poem he composed while still a teenager to his renowned writings on Christian spirituality and his lesser known (at least in America) but still vitally important work on addiction, race relations, interfaith dialog (especially with Muslims) and economic justice. Arranged topically rather than chronologically, Prayer and Prophecy is so well-edited that it stands as a cohesive and integral literary work in its own right — it’s possible to read this work, ignoring the footnotes citing where the various sections were first published, and see it not as an anthology but as a powerful summation of a lifetime of spirituality, theology, and social activism, all integrated into a single movement of faith and love. The curse of so many lesser anthologies is that their selections can seem disjointed and disconnected; but the editors of this volume (David Bunch and Angus Ritchie) have done a superb job of arranging Leech’s best writing in such a way as to make it a pleasure to read through.
Leech tells the story of speaking on racism one time in America, only to have an audience member say to him afterward, “That was a wonderful talk, but I bet people confuse you with the other Kenneth Leech, the one who writes books on spirituality!” It’s funny in a sad way, and speaks to how well so many Christians — again, at least in America — can create firewalls between “spirituality” and “social/political action.” The simple truth is, Kenneth Leech the authority on Christian spirituality is the same Kenneth Leech who is widely respected as an authority on combatting racism, drug abuse, urban violence, and poverty. And of all his books that I have read, Prayer and Prophecy is probably the best one-volume introduction to the breadth of his thought.
A cursory look at the table of contents reveals the scope of Leech’s work: “The Trinity,” “Church and Society,” “Faith and Race,” “Worship before Doctrine,” “Nearer to Holiness,” “Theology and Place.” I should point out that, years before I entered formation as a Lay Cistercian (thus being exposed to the Benedictine value of stability), Kenneth Leech’s commitment to ministry in a single location — the east end of London, where he remained for over forty years — had impressed me both for its counter-cultural stance but also for the inherent wisdom and Christian charity that such a commitment entails. Leech’s views might not always be comfortable — for example, after having written one of the first books on spiritual direction to be widely read, he eventually became an outspoken critic of how spiritual direction became something of a “fad ministry” in the 1980s and 1990s, and saw the increasing professionalization of spiritual accompaniment as a worrisome trend — but it is clear that he is always motivated by genuine devotion to Christ and authentic care and compassion, particularly for those who often are overlooked or ignored by the institutional church. As someone with only limited knowledge of the east end, I found reading this book to be a little bit like peeking in someone’s diary: Leech is so personal in his writing that he is continually referring to mentors, priests and activists he admired, and various other characters and troublemakers from his neighborhood whose stories for one reason or another needed to be told. Such personal touches naturally make his writing come alive, but also ground his theology and political philosophy in the real world of relationships and community. Indeed, Leech is known as a “community theologian” and insisted — well articulated in this volume — that theology is best not when it happens in the Ivory Tower, but on the streets. Praise God that Ken Leech lived his theology so honestly and articulated it so well for the rest of us to ponder.
It is encouraging in our time to see more and more Christians begin to recognize the importance of — in Richard Rohr’s words — action and contemplation. Spiritual practice needs engaged/activist ministry, and vice versa. With this in mind, I find Leech’s writing, in which the splendor of Christian spirituality blends so seamlessly with vitally important social action, to be perhaps the best example I know of how ordinary Christians can bring action and contemplation together into a single life of ministry and praise.
Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.