Leah Libresco, of the Unequally Yoked blog here at Patheos, has written a book entitled Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. I hope to offer a full review of Leah’s book sometime in the next week or so (capsule summary: I liked it); in the meantime I’ll just say that Leah’s unique—I might say inimitable—take on certain common Catholic prayers and devotions will cause you to see them in a new light, and perhaps understand and appreciate them more than ever before. That take results from her story, from her childhood as a modern-day stoic, through her years as an atheist, to her surprising conversion and subsequent transition to the Catholic Channel from Patheos’ Atheist Channel. Both before and after her conversion she’s maintained a sense of good cheer and of a real joy taken in a fair fight, fought cleanly and without rancor; and in a battle of wits she is by no means unarmed.
I had the opportunity this week to do an e-mail interview with Leah about her book. We both had busy schedules this week, and so I wasn’t able to turn the interview into a genuine conversation as I’d have truly enjoyed had we had more time; nevertheless, I hope what follows will give you a taste of Leah’s approach and encourage you to dig deeper. Enjoy!
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Cry Woof: Anyone who’s read your blog knows how you identify with Inspector Javert and his desire for duty and order, and of course you begin your book with him. Adolescent stoics would seem to be scarce on the ground; have you any idea why these things resonated with you from such an early age?
Leah: Hard for me to say – I’m surprised that there aren’t more! (But I would be). The part of stoicism that seemed obvious to me as a kid was basically a generalization of the aphorism (alleged to be coined by Eleanor Roosevelt), “No one can make your feel inferior without your own consent.” I felt like, by default, people felt inferior or sad or even hungry when their feelings didn’t help them at all, and I was having none of it.
Once, in middle school, we were on a field trip on a boat, and one of the coolers containing our lunches was left behind by mistake. Most of the other students who were suddenly without lunches were upset, but I figured that being sad or hungry wouldn’t make my lunch appear, so it wasn’t useful to feel that way at all.
Cry Woof: In your chapter on petitionary prayer, you write about praying for fictional characters. Now, I can understand being moved to prayer by a work of fiction, and I can understand becoming invested in the problems of characters I like, and thinking about how to solve them; and I can understand those things because I’ve done them. Praying for characters seems a bit out of the ordinary. Just what do you ask for on their behalf?
You say you try to pray for people who are like the character, but that indicates that sometimes you literally just pray for the character. Could you say a few words about all of this?
Leah: I ask something on behalf of fictional characters because I want to nurture reflexes for spontaneous prayer wherever I can. I expect that it will make it easier for me to be moved to pray for real people. What I do, when I am moved by a fictional character, is to pray for whatever I would ask for them if they were real, and then meditate on whether I know anyone in real life with a similar pain or difficulty and then pray for them in the same way. If I can’t think of anyone, I ask God to recognize my prayer for the fictional person as standing in for the prayer I would like to offer someone in similar circumstances, whose need is unknown to me. Finally, I pray to be more receptive to the people around me, so I have the chance to pray for them and help them, if they experience this difficulty or any other.
Cry Woof: As a programmer, I love the idea of the Ignatian examen as a kind of spiritual debugger. Have you investigated other aspects of Ignatian spirituality?
Leah: I’ve done some reading on Ignatian practices of discernment (I really liked Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green S.J.). I don’t practice it in any regular way, but I’ve found Green’s way of thinking (and his examples) helpful when making choices and trying to reflect on the way I’m living my life.
Cry Woof: What about other forms of Catholic spirituality? (Carmelite, Benedictine, Dominican, etc.) If so, what practices or aspects of this spirituality attract you?
Leah: I always ask Carmelite friends to pray for me! That’s pretty much the extent of my engagement with that tradition – I’m terrible at contemplation and silence, so I’ve kind of delegated my growth on that front to my friends with a gift for that kind of prayer for the near-term. I’ve been lucky to be friends with several Dominican friars who give me glimpse into a Dominican life (both in terms of the schedule of their prayers and in the joyful way they think about the details of theology).
Cry Woof: Your use of the examen started out narrow and eventually broadened: from looking just at what you actually did, you began to look outward at the network of people around you and began to consider what you might have done. (As Sun Microsystems used to say, the Network is the Computer.) Are there other areas of your life where prayer has led you from a focus on yourself to a focus on others?
Leah: I think all prayer has involved this self-to-other movement for me, but particularly petitionary prayer. I had thought of it, prior to conversion, as just asking for life to be easier for me. So, if I was praying for someone else, it would be in the context of “Make this person different so that they annoy me less.” In practice, when I pray for someone else, I don’t wind up asking for parts of them to be pared away, but for them to have the freedom and trust to be more joyfully themselves. And then I’m challenged to think of what help I could offer or obstacles I might be creating to their task of being a vivid, delightful saint.
Cry Woof: You write about using the Hail Mary as a way to break a sinful habit: if you started to pray it when thinking uncharitable thoughts, then for as long as it took you weren’t thinking uncharitable thoughts. In Catholic terms, you were learning to use prayer to avoid a near occasion of sin, which is about as practical as it gets. Have you found other forms of prayer with such simple, practical benefits?
Leah: The Divine Office, with its psalms assigned to particular hours, helps impose some order and limits on my day. It’s easy for me to over-schedule, thinking I can just stay up later or eat very dark chocolate (I like it better than coffee) and manage to do everything by sheer force of effort. But the Divine Office is scheduled outside my control – I can’t stay up late and thereby make up Morning Office if I miss it; it would make no sense to pray it at midnight! The Divine Office is a sign of contradiction to the way I try to live by default and helps remind me that I have to choose what gets my time and attention – I can’t make more of either by willing it.
Cry Woof: You compare the rhythm of the Rosary with the rhythm of a “basic” dance step: it’s your job to maintain the rhythm and God’s job to lead you in the dance. That tallies with something I’ve read recently by Simon Tugwell, OP; he says that we can’t really pray on our own; the Holy Spirit prays in us. At best we can prepare for prayer to happen if the Holy Spirit so wishes. As a Lay Dominican, I’m expected to pray the Rosary daily, and I don’t always do it all that well. I think perhaps I need to work on my “basic”. I don’t have an actual question, here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Leah: Well, my general thought, whenever someone has a regular prayer practice that’s turned semi-frustrating is to solve the problem the easy way: change contexts! If you do feel anxious about your daily Rosary or have had a run of eh-ones, it might be harder to start tomorrow’s in the same location/time/etc that’s not panned out before. You might have a sinking feeling before you even start. Try picking a different time or a different place (I once said the Rosary in a tree!) so that it feels like you’re starting the same prayer afresh. A trivial chance might break a rut or satisfy a desire for novelty outside the prayer itself.
Cry Woof: I pray the Divine Office daily, but my approach to it seems to be about exactly opposite yours. I seem to mostly lack the poetry gene, and of course the psalms are nothing if not poetry; and so I’ve taken the Divine Office as an opportunity to pray with Christ using Christ’s own words (as it were) without attempting to analyze it as deeply and methodically as you’ve done. I find that my favorite part of Morning and Evening Prayer are the intercessions, because they remind me to pray for those whose needs have come to my attention and to offer them up as part of the Office. Is there a particular part of the Divine Office that especially works for you?
Leah: Honestly, my favorite part is the opening lines “God come to my assistance. Lord make haste to help me.” I like that they are such a clear beginning to prayer (and they don’t put the burden of knowing what help to ask for on me!). Because I pray Morning and Evening Office every day, I say this twice, and it feels like it binds the day together (along with linking it to my prayers yesterday and tomorrow). The repetition makes it feel like I’m walking into a room where prayer is always already in progress, and that I could come any time and stay as long as I like.
Cry Woof: In your chapter on lectio divina you describe various techniques you’ve used to help you take the words seriously: to really look at them, rather than presuming you already know how the author is using them. In Fire of Mercy, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis talks about doing lectio divina on the Greek text of Matthew. He prefers to use an interlinear edition of the Gospel with the Greek and English on alternate lines, so that he can see the relations between the related Greek words. I gave this a try a while back, and it’s interesting even if you don’t know Greek: the same words and patterns keep coming back, and you’ve got the English for the sense of it.
Your approach does seem somewhat contrary to how I’ve usually seen lectio described: as not being so much about what this scripture says, or about all the words, but about finding a word or phrase that grabs you and using it as an opportunity to listen to God in your current situation through these particular words. Do you ever find that lectio works that way for you?
Leah: Looking at the words seriously is my way of making space to listen to God! When I think about questions I’d have about translation (When the Gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the Word” does it mean the Word était (imperfect past – something that began but went on) or the Word a été (normal past, usually something that is completed))? Pushing a little on the text sometimes means I get a glimpse of insight myself, but usually gives me something to ask God about to open the time of prayer. I have trouble with open-ended contemplation, so it’s easier for me to have a question (even an abstruse one) to spark my time of listening, even if what I receive is different than what I initially asked.
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Having read Arriving at Amen through quickly once, I now plan to read it again slowly; and then I’ll post an actual review. Or instead of waiting for my review you could, you know, just go ahead and get a copy for yourself.