by Father John O’Brien, OFM
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
In the introduction, Fr. O’Brien, states that “All human experience is an expression of our acceptance of, or rejection of the life of grace. Any experience of goodness or love we have leads us to God who is love.” (1 Jn 4:8) We consistently and constantly long for the sense of divine presence and discover the world in us. The call to mysticism is evident in the people O’Brien calls us to reflect on: Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, John Paul VI, John of the Cross VanBalthasar and Rahner who put the presence of God as their primary focus each and every day. Mystics need God and God needs them. He wants them to know the goodness and love that He wants to give them.
Through the revelation of these wise men and women we see O’Brien setting us up in a beautifully Franciscan way of stating the reason for the book. In this book O’Brien looks to the experience and writing of some of the artists of the many of people who prayed. They experienced the life of prayer by engaging in faith in a life of prayer. These people, in love with God, wrote their experiences so that we, too, can experience God in a life of prayer.
In the first chapter of the book, O’Brien, forms for us the first steps in this prayerful endeavor. He points out the relevance of ‘Gravity’ as a film where we see what happens with loneliness and desolation and the consequences of those feelings. In the newest film “A Quiet Place” we see the loneliness and fear of and for sound. It is considered a horror film and really the only horror is being in a soundless world in which the monsters eat anyone who makes a sound. The family in the film cares in the same way Our Father cares for the family. The silence could be a time to tackle that longing for the presence of God. The film makes us wonder if we have too much noise in our lives which causes an inability to connect with God. In the next section, the journey to God is investigated. St. Theresa sees mental prayer ‘as nothing more than an intimate sharing between friends’. As in the film A Quiet Place’ we have difficulty with silence and staying with myself. Even when we begin to get used to the silence we become overwhelmed with doubt. The author then puts before us the struggle of scientist. He writes of the work of Pascal who did work on pressure and vacuums and computing machines. He had an experience with God in 1624-“he felt the first of divine love in his heart” He kept this prayer to God in his possession and it was discovered after his death. The author offers us a superb analysis of the interplay of God and the devil with the characters in The Brother Karamazov where Dostoyevsky creates a banquet of love, a communion in the name of Christ. The author finishes this chapter: “Transformation in the world begins when people are love and healed, and start investing in other people.
In chapter two the idea of a restless heart is dealt with. O’Brien begins with St. Augustine who states: “Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in Thee”. All of us have dealt with the restlessness on some level during our lifetime and we look for ways to make our hearts peaceful with all that implies. Augustine and many of us look toward the Lord, according to the author. We are seeking that peace and it can be found in the psalms or we stumble upon it in our everyday messes. The author encourages the reader to work with the process of Lectio Divina in which we read and listen, primarily the Scriptures. In this section of the chapter, examples of Scripture passages and how they can be used in this style are related in a poetic fashion. In the next section, transformed by love, the author again draws us to some of the best and strongest Catholic writers and how they struggled with their relationship. O’Brien states: “In solitude we meet our own loneliness, lack of love and the times we have let others and ourselves down. In meeting God we begin to move towards self-compassion, a new way of living. We know our weaknesses and fragility and we reach out for strength to the one who is closer to us than we are to ourselves”. The author continues to give us passages from Scripture including the psalms and the works of Augustine with a reflection for the reader. O’Brien helps the reader to see how they can truly trust in the God they are deepening their relationship with.
Chapter three is filled with the musical beauty of the psalms as well as other poetry from the Scriptures and the lives of some of the saints. O’Brien gives us some deep and abiding reflections on his relationship with Christ. When he paints for us Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, he presents the version of St. Mark: “he is the obedient son of God who struggles to accept God’s will in His passion”. He explains that the apostles had not prayed so they are not ready when the hour comes so they run away. Every person identifies with the pain of abandonment and O’Brien helps us to understand/feel the reality of it. When he transitions to the work of Teresa of Avila, he gives us her major works as The Life, The Way of Protection and the Interior Castle which explain the practice of prayer. The author describes the detachment she explored in regard to the world and her constant commitment to Christ. The work of Peter of Alcantara as well as St. Augustine are brought forth for our reflection in light of the chapter title: Looking Unto Jesus.
O’Brien begins chapter four with the Canticle of Canticles. He relies more and more on poetry in order to explain his constant commitment to Christ. He refers to The Bride in the Song of Songs. O’Brien indicates that “The bride and bridegroom show us the enduring miracle that is love.” He gives us the dialogue as well as the reflections about this very sensuous and deep love of the Beloved. He then brings us to Bernard of Clairvaux who, as a mystic, reflected on the presence of God through the Trinity. The author continues to provide us with passages that refer to the work of Bernard and then reflection on how God’s presence is made even more manifest.
In chapter 5 and 6 O’Brien continues to establish his deepening understanding of his relationship with God by his writing about St. John of the Cross and his relationship with Teresa. “The substance of the soul, according to John, is the place of permanent union with God at the height of the mystical path.” He frames the dark night of the soul of St. John as a cleansing and awakening of his need for Christ. “John saw himself as being in communion with the lonely Christ in Gethsemane. Even in this desolation God’s Spirit, the living flame of love, is active bringing new life, a new dawn of the Spirit”. Passages from “The Living Flame of Love” are offered to the reader to again continue the deepening spiral into the mystery of God and our embedding ourselves in that love. In Chapter six we return to both Teresa and Augustine to remind us of the deep and abiding love that they have. In discussing Teresa mansions there is no door between the sixth and seventh mansion. “The revelations of God now flow into the soul. Union is no longer fleeting. The soul now dwells in the ongoing presence of God. It is both a resting with the divine and moving with the divine.” (p.165)
The Bibliography provides us with other meaningful and wonderful works. This is a book you want to savor.