With a New Year comes new beginnings – or so the tyranny of the New Year’s Resolutions industry would have us believe. Resolutions can be a source of frustration rather than liberation, but there are few among us who do not give at least some pause for thought on how we might live better in the year ahead.
Two new books by some of our most gifted local Christian writers provide tools for living better in the New Year: Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Canterbury Press, 2017); and Finding God in the Mess: Meditations for Mindful Living, by Jim Deeds and Brendan McManus SJ (Messenger Publications 2017).
Both books fall into the genre of devotional literature, providing reflections and prayers to aid individuals or groups on a journey towards slowing down and connecting with God. Whether the authors are successful in guiding readers down this road depends on the hearts and minds of those who consider their words. As a reviewer from a Christian perspective, I think the stories and prayers they have provided are rich and insightful. I cannot comment on whether the books would appeal to secular readers seeking ‘mindfulness’ resources. But I think that both books illustrate that disciplined Christian practice has parallels to the ever-popular mindfulness practices that so many find beneficial.
Ó Tuama is a poet and the leader of the Corrymeela Community. His 2015 critically-acclaimed In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (Hodder and Stoughton) is one of the most beautiful ‘spiritual’ books I have read. Ó Tuama’s skills as a writer are evident in the introduction to Daily Prayer, ‘Oremus’ (Latin for ‘let us pray’). The story he tells in the first eight paragraphs – actually it is the way he tells it – is worth the price of the book alone.
The meat of the book draws on the spiritual practices of the Corrymeela Community, Northern Ireland’s longest-established peace and reconciliation organisation. Corrymeela was founded in 1965 by Rev Ray Davey, a Presbyterian chaplain at Queen’s, along with Queen’s students. It has been self-consciously ecumenical since its inception, and more intentionally rooted in prayer than its activist programme might suggest. In the introduction, Ó Tuama describes how Corrymeela practices prayer (p. xvii-xviii):
“We have a small prayerbook where, each day, we read the names of members of staff, volunteers and community. We have some intentions in prayer and we reflect on a text. Each day – from 1 to 31 – has a gospel text, and the corresponding entries in this book of prayer offer prayers and reflections on those texts. Joining with us in these days is joining with a hope, an essay, a breathing practice in the simple integration of reconciliation with the everyday.”
The book, then, is also an invitation to join with Corrymeela in daily prayers for reconciliation on the island of Ireland, and further afield.
The book is divided into two main parts. The first features ‘morning, midday and evening prayers,’ including a prayer for courage – something that seems fundamental for translating prayer for reconciliation into work for reconciliation. These prayers are followed by 31 days’ worth of scripture texts and accompanying prayers. These are only a few lines long, designed for considered meditation rather than quick reading. The second part includes nine ‘Prayers for times of division,’ including a creative petition based around the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Syrophenicia (‘prayer for resilience and repentance’). There are then further prayers, including the Stations of the Cross, Stations of a story, and a Liturgy of morning and night.
Finding God in the Mess is rooted in Ignatian spirituality, a tradition associated with St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and his insight that as we reflect on personal experience we can discover God in everyday life. The authors are grounded in the Catholic tradition: Deeds is a poet, author and Parish Development Co-ordinator and Training Facilitation Officer for the Diocese of Down and Conor; while McManus is a Jesuit priest and author, whose books include the 2014 Redemption Road: Grieving on the Camino (Orpen Press), which documents his struggle to come to terms with his brother’s suicide.
Finding God in the Mess is both text-based and visual, featuring 29 short reflections accompanied by a photograph and three reflection questions. All but two of the photographs were taken by McManus, and are intended to help the reader enter more fully into the reflective text.
The book is organised around ‘the mysteries of the Rosary,’ including sections on the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous (light) Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. While this may be helpful for those from Catholic traditions, it may be alienating for those from Protestant traditions – though this need not be the case. I am from a Protestant tradition, and I found that this organisation has helped me better grasp how Catholics use the Rosary as an aid to prayer.
Some of the reflections include exhortations to slow down and feel your breath, to close your eyes, to visualise scenes – hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality which parallel contemporary mindfulness practices. Indeed, Deeds and McManus do not always even assume that the audience they are writing for prays, as the reflection on ‘Dark Night’ reads (p. 87):
“Let’s take a moment and pray (if it’s your thing) for those in dark times right now (or maybe spare a thought or hold them in your heart if praying isn’t) that they too will come out of those dark times and into lighter times.”
For me, the overall tone generated by the reflections, images and questions is one of compassion – Finding God in the Mess recognises that everyday living is not always easy, and that we often need help to discover joy along the way.
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com