'The freshly tilled soil of broken-open souls'

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By Robert J. Wicks
Published by Sorin Books, $20

Although we may often try to repress them, our negative emotions and vulnerabilities can bring us closer to God if we allow ourselves to retain “a sense of intrigue” about our feelings and ourselves. So says prolific spirituality writer Robert Wicks in his recent book Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life.

Wicks is a professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Baltimore and the author of 40 books, including the well-received Riding the Dragon and Crossing the Desert. He has counseled relief workers coming out of the Rwandan civil war and has given presentations to people caring for Iraq war veterans. He has seen many people struggling with life’s blows. Perhaps one of the most insightful comments he quotes in Prayerfulness comes from a woman in her 20s, who told him about losing her younger brother. Her grief led her to a deeper understanding of herself and of God: She said that “the seeds of spirituality needed to look for the freshly tilled soil of broken-open souls.”

After a short foreword by poet Joyce Rupp and the author’s own introduction, Prayerfulness opens into Part I, “Navigating the perils of spiritual intimacy.” These seven chapters provide examples of how to remain mindful of God and the world around us in the midst of routine and disappointment. “Simple rituals can create a discipline of holy attention.”

The advice here is pretty straightforward. Wicks suggests taking a walk alone each day or setting aside 20 minutes each morning to read a portion of scripture and reflect on it in silence. In chapters such as “Honor Life’s Fragility” and “Face Sadness Directly,” Wicks meditates on how we can best approach our mistakes, hurts and failures: When we are helpless, we become more aware of God’s grace; when we are sad, we become more compassionate toward others’ sorrows. At the end of each chapter, Wicks provides a list of bullet points that we can use to take inventory of our states of mind to see how we’re coming along as prayerful people: Do we have “a willingness to recognize, embrace and flow with change”? How about “a spirit of receiving life as it is without reaction or rejection”? Finally, he cautions that prayerfulness is something we have to strive for continually; it’s not a static state that we achieve once and for all.

Part II of Prayerfulness consists of practical applications to get your prayer life in gear. In the first section, “A personal retreat on prayer and prayerfulness,” Wicks suggests a theme to reflect on for each day in a 30-day month, such as “our life as pilgrimage” (Day 8) or “acceptance of yourself” (Day 25), providing quotes and other snippets related to the idea. The next section, “A spiritual mindfulness questionnaire (SMQ): discovering your own prayerfulness profile,” is a series of 30 questions to help you gauge your own level of self-awareness, especially when it comes to your engagement with prayer and with God.

Wicks is obviously quite experienced as a counselor and has spent his life trying to attain the prayerfulness of which he writes. When he describes his own routine of rising early to pray, or his conversation 25 years ago with Henri Nouwen (who told him to take the 20 daily minutes with scripture), we realize this man is someone to listen to. But one of the frustrating things about Prayerfulness is that there just doesn’t seem to be enough of Wicks in it. A large part of the book is constructed of quotes from other authors on prayerfulness or paraphrased recitations of events from the lives of people Wicks has counseled. As interesting as these often are, this makes Part I of Prayerfulness seem like a string of case studies loosely tied together with transition statements from the author (“This was a lesson learned by the following college undergraduate student ...”).

However, the Spiritual Mindfulness Questionnaire at the end of the book is quite good. When they are approached seriously, with lots of reflection, I found that questions like “What do you believe robs you of your joy and peace?” “How much of the day would you say you ‘live in the now’?” “What do you believe is the secret of happiness?” “What are you living for and what … do you believe prevents you from living that way?” really did help clarify what my priorities were. “There are no right or wrong answers,” Wicks reassures us about these questions, “just your answers.”

Erin Ryan is the associate editor of Celebration magazine.

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