Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. At my congregation’s service in the morning, I will smear ashes on the foreheads of a number of friends and congregation members. For some, this practice will be new, something that the churches in which they were raised rejected, calling it “too Catholic.” I find such objections puzzling, particularly because in my observations, whenever Protestants get serious about learning to pray, we end up looking to Catholics and Orthodox to teach us how. For a few examples: I join a group of other Presbyterian pastors every month at a Catholic monastery where we receive spiritual instruction from an older priest. My Presbyterian seminary offers a certificate program in spiritual direction based on the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola. Most non-denominational writers I’ve read eventually end up quoting at least one of the great saints of the Roman Church.
As one such Protestant who likes to learn from Catholics, I was delighted to receive a review copy of a new book from Paraclete press: Catholic Spiritual Practices: A Treasury of Old & New. Edited by Colleen Griffith and Thomas Groome, of Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, this short book is a collection of essays on various spiritual practices which some might think of as distinctively Roman Catholic. I say some because many of the practices included are common to all Christians. The essay on The Lord’s Prayer, for example, was written by N. T. Wright and highlights the small “c” catholicity of the practices described here. Joseph Wong’s chapter on the Jesus Prayer describes a practices that’s more commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy than with the Roman Church.
Coming to the book from a Presbyterian background, I was especially curious to read the chapters on practices which I used consider distinctively Roman. Most such chapters did not disappoint. Groome’s chapter on the Rosary explained the practice and its historical development very concisely and accessibly. Brian Daley’s personal description of the practice of Eucharistic Adoration was also illuminating. My favorite chapter of the entire book, though, was Esther de Waal’s essay called “Living the Sacramental Principle.” In a narrative description of Celtic spirituality, de Waal shows how devotion to Christ can permeate even the most mundane elements of life. These five pages are worth the price of the whole book. In fact, it could be the point of the whole book. This tiny collection of essays describes itself as a treasury of practices, meaning “consciously chosen, intentional actions” which express and shape our lives of faith (p. 5). When one faithfully practices such practices, one is changed, having acted one’s way into a new way of thinking and being. A life spent practicing some of the disciplines described in this book is exactly how one can cultivate a sacramental worldview, “letting heaven break through,” as de Waal writes, to “let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary” (p. 67).