Friday, May 19, 2006

Book Review: Prayer - The Spirituality of the Christian East, Fr. Thomas Spidlik

Book Review: Prayer: The Spirituality of the Christian East, Volume 2. Thomas Spidlik. Cistercian Publications, 2005. 542pp.

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Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

There has been a great deal of interest in the past few decades in the spirituality of the Christian East. In part this might be explained by a desire on the part of Latin rite Catholics to look at other aspects of the Catholic tradition in an effort to rediscover certain aspects of their own. In part as well, there is a desire to learn more about the unity in variety that characterizes Catholicism. As well, many Eastern Catholics have been seeking to re-discover the riches of their own patrimony. However one approaches this matter, it is something of great merit and benefit.

Fr. Thomas Spidlik, S.J. is no stranger to this topic, and is a well respected theologian with a broad knowledge of both the Latin West and Byzantine East. As such, he brings a strong background with him to help explain the depths of the Eastern Christian tradition in a way that is understandable to both Eastern and Western Christians. Taking off from the first volume in this series (also published by Cistercian Publications), The Spirituality of the Christian East: A Systematic Handbook, Fr. Spidlik proceeds to a more concentrated discussion of the particular traditions of prayer found in the Christian East.

The scope of the book is nothing if not comprehensive, and as the first volume was called, so too can this be called a “systematic handbook”. Spidlik takes readers on a detailed explanation of the understanding, thought and approach of the Eastern theologians, Fathers and saints to prayer and to its various manifestations. Fr. Spidlik begins with a general overview of the Eastern patristic and liturgical sources which form the basis of his study – something which is extremely useful for those who wish to explore this topic even more in depth, using the primary sources as their basis of development.

A quick overview of the book itself will find that Fr. Spidlik covers many of the fundamental aspects of prayer, as seen in the light of the Christian East, as well as some of the more unique manifestations and emphases to be found within this tradition. Readers look at the use of the body during prayer, the nature and role of liturgical prayer, lectio divina or meditative reading of the scriptures and patristics, meditation and contemplation, and mysticism and hesychasm – to name only some of the major topics covered. With such breadth and diversity, it is hard to give a comprehensive review of this work – which is a credit to its richness. Suffice it to say that all of the major topics which pertain to Christian East, such as the Jesus Prayer, apophatic theology, the central role of the liturgy, the mysticism of Taboric light, and the mysticism of the heart, are all covered in detail.

Some readers will no doubt find that some of the detail gone into will perhaps be a bit overwhelming at times. However, the great benefit of a book with so many sections and topics covered, is that any reader with even the slightest interest in the spirituality of the Christian East will find much fruit for meditation and will be able to mine from the book what is in accord with their own particular interests. As the book is setup within neat sections and divisions, this is made particularly easy by Fr. Spidlik. In many ways, Prayer: The Spirituality of the Christian East can be seen as multiple books within a single systematic book.

Fr. Spidlik also brings his subject to bear in a way which is easy for the non-theologian to understand. That being said, there is no doubt this is a scholarly work. Each section ends with comprehensive footnotes, and of the 542 pages in the book, the majority of the last 169 pages form a bibliography which is separated into the particular topics brought up in the text itself. This makes the book of particular value to scholars and students of the Christian East.

If you are looking for a book from which to practice Eastern Christian prayer, then no doubt you will want to turn to the Philokalia, The Way of a Pilgrim, or some similar Eastern spiritual classic. However, if you want to learn about the richness and depths of Eastern Christian prayer and spirituality, theology, development and practice, then there is little doubt that this is one of the most comprehensive and authoritative books available in the English language.

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