At a pastors’ seminar recently I bought two books on prayer. Another pastor asked me to give him my reaction to one of them when I’d read it, so here goes. (I’ll review the other one in a few days.)

First I got Tom Harpur’s Prayer, the Hidden Fire: A Practical and Personal Approach to Awakening a Greater Intimacy with God, (1998, Northstone Publishing).

This is a nice-looking book, easy to hold and to read. Harpur’s writing has a gentleness to it and an informed and self-aware humility.

The author is an Episcopal priest, so his roots and primary sources are Biblical and Christian, but the book is very open to other religious traditions and other experiences of prayer. To my mind that is a valuable thing. He is a Rhodes scholar who also has considerable experience in journalism (Toronto Star).

The book is encouraging. It also is deliberately and helpfully practical. For instance

… why not take Psalm 23 – or if you prefer, some other brief passage from the world’s sacred or inspirational literature – and work with it daily for a month. Pray it or affirm it as your own prayer, adapting it where necessary. “Taste and see” for yourself what a difference it can make.

He brings up a variety of what I guess we have to call “techniques” in prayer – like the meditation on Ps 23 just mentioned, “inner prayer and meditation”, keeping a prayer diary, prayers of personal adaptation, etc. There is some good stuff here if you haven’t gotten such input elsewhere.

And it’s not all mystic self-comfort as some might expect. In a chapter on wrestling with God he says

Liberal Christians as well as those of other faiths sometimes get so carried away with their emphasis on God’s “cuddliness” that they miss this very important point.

But I did not finish reading the book. It has to me a certain sense of not quite having meshed gears with the real world my parishioners and friends are struggling in here. That world is brutal, and so are some of the struggles.

As the subtitle implies, this book focuses more within than outward, more on prayer as self-cultivation than as world-involvement. We need that, I know. And properly done it has a great impact on the world. (Along those lines I’d recommend Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel – On Prayer by Thomas Dubay. It’s very good on inner union with God and it’s practical effects, though not easy to read, especially for a non-Catholic. I’ve worked through it more than once. One of my favorite quotes from Teresa: “One does not deal well with God by force.”)

But the world around me is in a frightful state. If I’m to spend more time reading about prayer, I’m looking for something with more bite to it.

So I moved on to my second acquisition at Pastors’ Seminar: Scientific and Pastoral Perspectives on Intercessory Prayer: An Exchange Between Larry Dossey, M.D. and Health Care Chaplains. (1998, Harrington Park Press) It does seem to me to have more bite. I’ll review it here in a few days.