Friday, October 18, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick shares the blessings of prayer in Heaven on Earth

Walter Mason reviews Stephanie Dowrick's Heaven on Earth
Prayer has always been an instinctual act for me. It is one of my earliest memories, and I even learned to do it in secret as a young boy when I discovered that it wasn't, perhaps, as socially acceptable at school as it was at my grandmother's house. And as I grew up I became increasingly sceptical about prayer and frustrated at its results - or lack thereof. And so I stopped, though frequently throughout my young adulthood I felt that great primal need to pray. But I resisted, and it took me years to come back to it and begin to study it.

Now I have a rich and blessed prayer life and books about prayer take up several shelves in my personal library. I am always interested to hear what the devout and the mystical have to say about this most mysterious act of devotion, but I am frequently frustrated because the manuals of prayer are so overtly sectarian, pushing one or another religious path that, more often than not, leaves me feeling as though I just don't measure up.

Stephanie Dowrick’s exquisite new book, Heaven on Earth, is the perfect foil to this narrow focus. It concentrates on the power and possibility of prayer taking into account all of the world's spiritual traditions, and even encompassing the potential of prayer to assist those who have no religious beliefs at all. It is a literate, inclusive and tremendously wise collection of some of the most moving and inspiring prayers and words about prayer, and I know I will use it for the rest of my life.

Stephanie, herself a fervent practitioner of prayer and exponent of its effects on people, says that in praying we are opened to inspiration and awakening. “Just praying,” she writes, “we become who and what we were born to be.” In a world that is increasingly busy and where we are increasingly drawn into distraction and endless chatter, this book reminds us that the age-old conventions of prayer are deeply therapeutic and soul-soothing. The very routine of prayer, and the conscious memorization of particular words of prayer is, Stephanie suggests, a source of very real comfort to the person willing to give this time.

In praying we comfort ourselves but we also offer the blessings of love, compassion and gratitude to all of the people we encounter. The act of blessing is itself an outwardly-focused prayer that is of immense value in a culture which elevates cynicism, and where people consistently close themselves to some of the deeper possibilities that prayer can remind us of.

The book is filled with passages of prayer from many of the world’s spiritual greats, organised thematically. It makes for inspirational browsing, occasional reading and a tremendous aid to prayer. It also provides many and varied possibilities for a way in to the mysteries of prayer. In a piece by the modern mystic Evelyn Underhill that Stephanie quotes in the book, we are urged not to seek perfection in prayer and so put it off till we are ourselves saintly. Instead, we owe it to ourselves to find a practice that suit us and our situation right now, however silly that may appear to other people in our lives.

This is what makes Heaven on Earth so valuable a resource and the reading of it such a thrill and wonder. We are reminded once more of the tremendous diversity of spiritual life, of the 84,000 Dharma Doors the Buddha spoke of. There is something in this book that will appeal to even the hardest of hearts and reading it from cover to cover I was reminded that I need not feel any shame about prayer or living the spiritual life. Stephanie tells us that we don’t have to justify our prayer life to anyone – it is between us and that which we pray to. It is the ultimate moment of privacy and sacred confidentiality. It is when we can be most utterly vulnerable and most perfectly human.

As well as many of the spiritual masters through the ages, Heaven on Earth contains some exquisite prayers written by Stephanie Dowrick herself. The first section of the book, Stephanie's own explication of prayer, is also one of the most remarkable and inspiring pieces on living the spiritual life that I have ever read and bears constant re-reading all on its own.

Ultimately this is a book that filled me with hope and reminded me, via Lao Tzu’s advice, to cherish this world full of goodness, kindness and love. And, in the words of Stephanie Dowrick, each day when I pray I can ask simply to:

“Let me seek goodness. And find it.”

Many of you will be interested to go to this article by Stephanie Dowrick on writing Heaven on Earth. You can purchase your own beautiful hardcover copy of Heaven on Earth via this link. You can buy any book you find here or elsewhere via our Bookstore links, above right. That brings back a small, vital % to support this Book Club. We would also love you to share your comments via the box immediately below.

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