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Marcin ‘mbork’ Borkowski
I do not often write book reviews on my blog (in fact, this is probably the first time). However, I have recently read a book which is rather exceptional, so I’m going to make an exception.
Leah Libresco’s Arriving at Amen is a strange book. It is written by a former atheist turned Catholic, and this more because of intellectual reasoning than by an emotional impulse (which is, by the way, definitely a reasonable way – pun intended).
It is not, however, an apologetic book. Instead, the author decided to write a primer on prayer. This is really, really strange: usually, books on prayer are written by giants of spiritual life, mystics etc. (think St. John of the Cross, for instance).
Or are they? What is a “giant of spiritual life”, anyway? Is it really a Catholic notion? (Well, Jesus is one, and Mary too – in a different way, of course – but we’re talking about sinners here.) To be more specific: would you consider St. Peter a “giant of spiritual life”? Or St. John? Both had their weak moments (according to the Gospels, St. Peter indeed had quite a few of them). So you aren’t a “giant of spiritual life” through extraordinary willpower or anything like that; you are a “giant of spiritual life” (more or less) if you are humble enough to admit that you are not, and let God guide you instead of trying to do something “clever” on your own.
You might argue that comparing a neophyte (Libresco was received into the Catholic Church less than 3 years ago) to the apostles is not very appropriate. You know what? They were neophytes, too (in a sense). St. Paul began his teaching rather quickly after his conversion, didn’t he? Well – you might argue – but St. Paul was a good (Jewish) theologian already. That’s true, but Libresco, while not a theologian, is a philosopher (not in a sense of having a diploma, but in a sense of having a habit of sitting down and thinking in order to learn what’s going on), so in my book it’s close enough.
Also, Libresco is definitely a geek, and that’s really cool, since the geek culture is not particularly Christian, and having a Catholic to speak its language is a nice thing. Her geekiness is easily seen from the list of authors she quotes in the book: while St. Augustine, GKC, or JRRT are no surprise in any modern text on Catholicism, OSC, Alan Perlis and Randall Munroe are.
But what’s so special about the text itself, apart from the author? As I said, it’s a primer on prayer. The subtitle reads: Seven Catholic Prayers that even I May Offer. It turns out that the choice of these prayers is very, very interesting. Let me list them in the order they appear in the book: Petition, Confession, Examen, Rosary, Divine Office, Lectio Divina and the Mass. While petitionary prayer and the Mass are rather obvious choices, none of the rest is so – most of them seem not to be extremely popular nowadays (which is a shame). For instance, the stereotype of confession is as far of the feeling of joy as possible, for instance; all Catholics practicing it regularly know how false the stereotype is, and Libresco writes about it brilliantly.
I have to say that I really could not put down this book, even if it has a few (really, few) weaker places. It is full of insightful observations and surprising analogies. It makes me really want to try the Divine Office again (after a few failed attempts, I have to say), or other practices mentioned (though seemingly I was never brave enough to try to practice Examen or Lectio Divina). Leah Libresco, thank you so much for this book!
OK, this post is already quite long, so I’ll finish it here. Expect, however, some nice quotations in the near future. Irrespective whether you are Catholic or not (and you should be, really!), you may find them interesting and inspiring.