Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book

Before I begin to actually talk about this prayer book there's a few things you should know about me as a person, so that way my review has context. I am an incredibly practical person when it comes to the spiritual life. My first question is not "is this Orthodox?" but "Does it work?" Because if it brings up interior silence while professing the name of Jesus it is Orthodox. Full stop. However you think the spiritual life works is utterly irrelevant to me. If hesychia is created in your soul because of the synergy with God then it's Orthodox. So that's my metric for this prayerbook (and the Western Orthodox rite in general). Complicated speculation disguised as pious reflections are absolutely useless in spiritual combat and I've no time for it.  This doesn't negate the need for solid theology, doctrine, dogma, and a spiritual father, but ultimately the spiritual life is a practical matter, not a speculative one. If that's something you find offensive my apologies, but considering the amount of time and heart (not to mention wondrous silence) put into the Western rite I feel it's best to leave aside whatever gets away from my central question: does it work?

Until I read this prayerbook I'll confess that I did not really understand the Western rite, Orthodox or Catholic. Part of this is the incredibly bad catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly when I was a child. But that's just a contributing factor, to be honest, because I don't think I've ever been Western. The beauty and the overwhelming grandeur of God has always been what's reached out to me, so much so that it's impossible to understand how on earth anyone could do anything else. I know I'm hardly alone in that; I've never met an Easterner who didn't have a little bit of triumphalist in them. And why shouldn't we? What Easterners do works. And, after living in a world that many of us find almost completely meaningless without God, why shouldn't we have some feeling of triumph in ourselves? 

But I found something in this prayer book that was completely different. There's a tenderness, a specificity, to the prayers in this book that are not usually found in the East. The prayers feel smaller in the same way that a tender caress is smaller than a day in the life of a married couple. One could focus more on the day itself and say "the day went well, thank God!", but one could also say "that quick caress changed everything that day", and both would be equally valid.  It's just a question of approach. Which level do you primarily work on?

This difference in approach is shown in the physical product. It's small, easy to fit into your pocket. The leather-ish is very soft and is a pleasing black, with gilt edges. The paper's a nice white and there's the golden iHs on the front and back. Picking up this book is comfortable and comforting. When I first held the book I wondered why it was so small and I felt a bit gipped  by how small it was. But the more I hold it and look through it the more the production value stands out.

The prayers themselves are unabashedly Western: the specific requests that are relatively rare in the Eastern mindset are bread and butter here.
Most Holy and adorable Trinity, one God in three Persons, I believe that Thou art here present; I adore Thee with the deepest humility, and render to Thee, with my whole heart, the homage which is due to Thy sovereign majesty. -pg 28
 Like said previously, it's the specificity, the tenderness, the wish to not bruise a reed, that stands out. It's not a state of mind that I can do, although it is helpful in getting me to understand  my own self as an Eastern Christian. And, occasionally, I may find myself in this war we call life in a state where I am a lot more fragile than that reed. 

There's one thing that stands out: the Devotion to the Sacred Heart. For most Orthodox this is incredibly controversial, verging on (if not running with neon signs) heresy.The devotion has been edited to evoke more the Orthodox sense of what the heart of Jesus actually is. Uberdox will balk even at this, claiming that nothing Western can be salvaged. Going back to my first ideological point (If it works do it and hang what you think of it) I decided to add the short prayers in the book to my Rule of Pachomius. Nothing stood out as wrong to me and, if anything, deepened my appreciation of the mercy of our Lord, something I'm always in need of reminding. There's nothing in the devotion, as presented, that doesn't work. And that's as far as the criticism should go, as far as I'm concerned. 

There's a lot to this book, surprisingly so. Father John Winfrey has packed in lots and lots of content, including two liturgies, morning and evening prayers, Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the list goes on and on.  I won't pretend to go through the whole thing. But the prayers are beautiful and (most important) useful. Argue all you like about the Western Orthodox, I really don't care. I'll be happily dipping into this book to supplement my prayer rule and showing my children that there is more than one way to evoke hesychia. There's no harm if they can't use the Jesus Prayer or Eastern prayers to help them evoke silence, because the Western rite exists. I'm very thankful for that.

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