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Essence of Prayer

Essence of Prayer
by Ruth Burrows, OCD 
Mahwah, New Jersey: HiddenSpring, 2006 
207 pages
Reviewed by Laurie W. Basile, MATS

In Essence of Prayer, Ruth Burrows writes, “Having lived as a Carmelite for over fifty years, I affirm that…when lived authentically, Carmel is the starkest encounter with the experience of being human” (p. 181). Rather than prayer being the means to escape our daily human life with its commonness and unimportant happenings, Burrows insists that prayer consistently brings us into the very center of that ordinariness until, to our surprise, we find resting there in the poverty of our humanity union with the Divine. Contrary to popular belief, prayer is not sublime or exalted or something to be achieved. It is simply to be open to receive God’s love just as we are.

Within the nineteen articles in Essence of Prayer, such topics as how does one pray, what helps and hinders prayer, what does one do with distractions, what method is good, what is growth in prayer, what is holiness and what is the core of prayer are fleshed out. Reading this book is like sitting down with one of the world’s leading experts on prayer and getting the lowdown; having faithfully walked the path herself Burrows now offers us the wisdom of her journey. She also brings alive the great Carmelite Saints Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and Elizabeth of the Trinity as she explores their faith and prayer. As a cloistered Carmelite, the center of Burrow’s prayer is Jesus and the New Testament, yet she speaks to the wider community of laity, non-Christian and married people. This book is written for anyone interested in prayer and the contemplative life.

One of the best chapters was “Sustained Passion” which explores the heart of Carmel. Questions arose as I read it: “Where is my Carmel? How do I live out the spirit of Carmel in my life as a married woman in Paris? How do I balance solitude and community?” Although the worlds of Carmel and Paris would seem to have nothing in common, I was quite surprised that her words described to a large extent my own life here in this most un-Carmel-like city. The gift of this book is that it offers insight and encouragement to those who pray no matter where or with whom they live. The path of prayer is there for each of us.

Throughout the book Burrows speaks with authority, clarity and honesty:

I recall how, as a young religious, suffering acutely from the feeling that as a Carmelite I was an utter failure, having nothing whatever to offer to God, I gradually perceived this to be precisely what the vocation is about, its very heart. I was to receive and to believe I had received without any token thereof. I was to accept to have nothing to give, to live always with open hands. My giving could only be in allowing God to give. (P.194)

This is Burrows’ radical view of prayer. How does this fit in with your view, your experience, and the experience of those you spiritually companion?

Laurie Basile, MATS, is a spiritual director living the last two years in Paris, France. She is involved with multicultural contemplative prayer groups and has recently begun walking Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (Camino de Santiago) starting from Vezelay, France.

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