A Review of How Do You Pray?, edited by Celeste Yacoboni
Softcover: Monkfish Book Publishing, 2014
Reviewed by David M. Denny
When I was a young monk, I read many excerpts from classic texts, from the Desert Fathers up through the Counter Reformation. These works were often didactic. The author knows how to pray, and tells you how to. Some writers were poetic, like Guigo the Carthusian, who compared spiritual reading to tasting a grape. Some writers developed elaborate schemas, such as Richard of St. Victor’s Four Degrees of Passionate Charity.
Some of these old texts’ authors are saints, such as Bernard of Clairvaux or Teresa of Avila. I felt a sense of awed distance from them, due to separation in time and culture, awkward translations, and their revered reputations. But sometimes they struck timeless chords that helped me see that human life is human life, in all times and places.
Celeste Yacoboni’s collection is like sitting down with a friend who is not “teaching,” but sharing a practice, an attitude, an approach that makes sense here and now, in contemporary English. It is doubly delightful because some of these authors are friends, such as Tessa Bielecki. Suddenly “holiness” and “enlightenment” are not the property of medieval saints or bodhisattvas, but of friends and friends of friends, witnesses of the Vietnam War or Rwandan genocide who respond with their whole hearts.
These voices testify to the likelihood that the age of divergence, of religious traditions developing in relative isolation from each other, is passing. Ours may become an age of convergence, in which we listen to neighbors instead of walling them off, in which we may move from the fear of contamination by the “other” to the hope of cross-fertilizing communion.
An Excerpt from How Do You Pray?
Q: Tessa, how do you pray?
A: I pray best looking out my west window. A candle burns on the windowsill if it’s dark, throwing shadows on the exquisite Mexican latilla ceiling of my log cabin. In the daytime I can see fifty miles away across the San Luis Valley to the San Juan Mountains. Sometimes there are coyotes, elk, or antelope. There are always deer, ravens, and piñon jays. Day or night, I sit in silence, looking out the window, basking in the Presence.
My favorite description of God comes from William McNamara, the Carmelite priest who taught me so much about prayer in my forty years of monastic life. (I am no longer a monk.) Calling God Personal Passionate Presence, he said that the only response to Personal Passionate Presence is our own personal passionate presence. So I have learned to sit in silence, passionately present to the moment, in the fullness of my unique personhood, as who I simply am: Tessa. In the silence I feel the Presence surrounding me. I am immersed in Presence and one with it. The Presence fills me and “speaks” to me, but not in words.
I name this Presence “God,” having no trouble with God-language. Sometimes words come to mind, arising from my heart. They seldom move to my lips. Still in silence, I thank and praise God, and above all, love God. Sometimes there are tears, sometimes laughter – yes, out loud. I’m grateful for the day and night, the sun and snow, the animals and birds, the hard work and good play, the comedy and tragedy, the joys and sorrows that fill my life and the life of the whole world.
The world is always present in the silence of my hermitage and the stillness of my heart. For although there may be no one else sitting embodied with me in the solitude, the whole world is present to me in the Presence there.