Janet Backman commends a book with much to teach all those who wish to be disciples of Jesus Christ
WORDS OF SPIRITUALITY
Exploring the Inner Life Enzo Bianchi
SPCK, 128pp, pbk
978 0281068678, £9.99
One of the most poignant of questions in the whole of the Bible is the request the disciples make to Jesus in chapter eleven of St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. It is a request which echoes down the centuries as each new generation seeks to respond to the mystery which is the call of God, and to enter into relationship with him through the sacraments of the Church and the medium of private prayer.
The text came up at Mass a couple of weeks ago, just as I was reading Words of Spirituality, and it immediately made me grateful for it. Enzo Bianchi seeks here to teach us not just how to pray, but how to enter into Spiritual Life. There is no doubt, though, that he sees prayer as the single most important feature of this journey, offering eight chapters on it whereas most subjects merit only one. There is a chapter each on prayer as journey and prayer as a relationship, as well as chapters on different types of prayer. Each brings out a different aspect of this central tenet of Christian discipleship, the absolute necessity of which is uncompromisingly explained here: ‘Without prayer one may have a vague sense of belonging to Christianity, but instead of authentic faith, there is only ideology; instead of hope, there is self-sufficiency; instead of Christian love, there is only frenzied philanthropic activity driven by a desire for visibility. Even when appearances seem to demonstrate the contrary, prayer – dialogue with the God who saves – will save the world.’
This paragraph is characteristic of the author’s forcefulness and clarity. Similarly, the term ‘Spiritual Life’, already mentioned above, can mean all sorts of things these days, and very often means a quest for ‘something spiritual’ with all the tough bits of faith conveniently taken out. It is not so in this book. Bianchi is clear – fierce, one might say – about the demands which faith, taken seriously, place upon both the Church and the individual believer. The spiritual life, properly and fully understood, is one lived in relationship with God. ‘It is essential today to repeat these basic truths, because we live in a time in which the life of the Church, dominated by pastoral concerns, has come to reflect the idea that the experience of faith is based on social involvement rather than on the discovery of a personal relationship with God lived in a community context’. That community is, of course, the Church, with its sacraments, disciplines, liturgies and prayers, much of which Bianchi explores in these chapters. But he warns, right at the start, that ‘reducing the Christian experience to its ethical dimension is the quickest and most direct way to empty faith of its meaning’. Putting flesh on the bones of what the Christian faith entails above and beyond the ethical is the purpose of this book, first published in this country in 2002, and now reprinted in a new edition by SPCK as the first in a series of books by Bianchi to be published by them.
Bianchi takes as his modus operandi the nuggets of spiritual teaching offered by the desert fathers in response to the request – not that different from that of the disciples to Jesus – ‘Abba, give me a word’. Thus, the book consists of forty-five short chapters, each addressing one specific aspect of Christian life and discipleship. The chapters are designed to cross-reference each other, like entries in an encyclopaedia. So although the book may enjoyably be read from start to finish, it might be more profitable to dip in and out, paying close and careful attention to each chapter, and allowing the Spirit to direct the mind as to where to turn next.
Much of what Bianchi says here is uncompromising, but it is good to see that he also takes seriously certain modern phenomena which are often neglected by the Church. For example, he finds echoes of Akedia – spiritual listlessness – in the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis, and takes the dangers of both very seriously. His solution, however, is characteristically uncompromising, and (also characteristically) starts with the advice of the fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus: ‘Set a measure for yourself in everything you do.’ In other words, organize your time, set a schedule for yourself, and take responsibility for your life’.
If this word sounds a little harsh, then it must be added that there is much in the book which is generous, warm and encouraging. The chapters on hope, forgiveness, knowing ourselves and solitude are good examples. In other chapters, Bianchi shows how the traditional monastic vows of chastity, obedience and poverty are in fact essential elements of discipleship for all those who would seek to follow Christ.
This is a beautiful book, so let me end with what Fr Bianchi has to say about the Christian understanding of beauty: ‘Christian beauty is not an object but an event. It is an event of love that narrates again and again in history, creatively and poetically, the folly and tragic beauty of the love with which God has loved us by giving us his Son, Jesus Christ’. This is a message which the Church and all faithful Christians must never tire of proclaiming from the rooftops. This book will help them to do it. ND