Timothy W. O'Brien

There are as many ways to pray as there are people who pray, a diversity that extends to books about prayer as well. These three recent releases are quite different, but each touches upon important aspects of the spiritual life that undergirds Christian living.

Recent years have seen an outpouring of popular and scholarly books about Flannery O’Connor. Despite the intense literary and biographical focus accorded this Catholic novelist, emphasis on her own life of faith and prayer has been comparatively rare. The Province of Joy, by the Fordham University professor and America contributor Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, helps fill this notable gap.

All who pray (or want to pray) will profit from this slender and attractive volume—not just Flannery devotees. The true fruit of O’Donnell’s work comes in praying with it, as opposed to merely reading along. The book contains a week’s worth of morning and evening prayer, adapted from the Liturgy of the Hours. Each day centers on a theme drawn from O’Connor’s life (e.g., blindness and vision, limitation and grace) and each “hour” includes brief texts from her letters and writings, offered for meditation.

O’Donnell has helpfully included poems and prayers that Flannery herself found spiritually fruitful and which offer a glimpse into her own prayer. Taken together with the excerpts from O’Connor’s own writing, these underscore that nonsacred texts are privileged places where graced contact with God can occur. This is a refreshing idea for novice and more seasoned pray-ers alike, and one that opens up the vast poetic and literary riches of Christianity as wellsprings for personal prayer.

The only drawback of this book is that there is not more of it, literally. Typically, only two passages from Flannery’s writings are presented for meditation each day, one each at morning and evening prayer. Consequently, the texts grow familiar rather quickly. What there is is quite rich, however, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell has done a great service in preparing this text.

Also within the framework of liturgical prayer, J. Michael Thompson’s Saints of the Roman Missal offers supplementary resources for the saints added (or, in some cases, re-added) to the latest English version of the Roman Missal. For each of these, Thompson includes a short biography, text for reflection and a brief prayer—features that would be of service to preachers or religion teachers in particular. The format also has the happy effect of highlighting the international face of the latest Roman Missal, which includes saints from around the globe and even some venerated in non-Latin rites.

The book’s distinguishing mark is that Thompson, a liturgical musician, has prepared new hymns (set to familiar melodies) for each saint. Fitting new words to old music is a challenging task, but it is one Thompson typically does well. At times, however, the pairing of tune and text feels somewhat incongruous. A good example is verse two of the hymn honoring St. Christopher Magallanes and Companions (May 21), set to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”: “In a time of persecution/ When the Church in Mexico/ Suffered in the fiercest manner/ And the streets with blood did flow,/ God called men and women martyrs/ That their lives in sacrifice/ Might be freely, fully given/ For their faith beyond all price.” Though the lyrics match the tune’s meter, singing about blood-soaked streets feels a bit disorienting when the hymn’s tempo seems much more amenable to “Stars and angels sing around Thee/ Center of unbroken praise.” In the main, though, Thompson has given us settings that can be helpful for communal worship, making this book a worthy companion for parish music ministers.

Rosalind Bradley’s edited volume, A World of Prayer, approaches the spiritual life from an interreligious angle, offering a collection of favorite prayers from noted individuals rather than a how-to manual for spiritual types. Herself part of an Australian interfaith organization, Bradley does this with an eye towards “finding ways to transcend religious divides and foster understanding and mutual respect between the world’s religions.”

The prayers themselves point to areas of commonality among religious traditions as diverse as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Quakerism, Hinduism, Baha’ism and Taoism. Submissions from over 100 individuals of note?mostly humanitarians and religious leaders?are included, and the array of personalities surveyed is truly remarkable. It is no small feat to assemble reflections from Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., Archbishop Rowan Williams and Yusuf Islam (the performer formerly known as Cat Stevens).

Bradley’s book is successful at giving a sense of how other people pray. Just reading the selections challenges rigid distinctions between “our” prayers and “their” prayers, however conceived. On the other hand, the text’s utility for deepening one’s own prayer life is somewhat less apparent. And though the goal of the text is to increase understanding across faiths, the entries included sometimes give a better sense of the individual practitioner than of his or her religious tradition.

These issues are minor, however, and Bradley is surely correct on a major point: that prayer, common to all faiths, can lead individuals to bridge religious divides. In that spirit, this text can serve as a valuable resource for those who work in interreligious dialogue or who are interested in it. Better still, it is of use for all of us who seek to deepen our religious literacy in a world that is growing increasingly more diverse.

Timothy O’Brien, S.J., is a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and assistant editor of The Jesuit Post (www.thejesuitpost.org).