July-August 2004

Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition.  By Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B. Ignatius. 222 pages. $14.95.

Father Bunge, a Benedictine monk in Switzerland, wrote this book to help repair a break from the tradition of personal prayer as practiced by the Fathers of the Church. In this book he presents their “practical” way of prayer, which is rooted in Scripture and original Tradition. Just as the Fathers learned to pray from the people of the Old and New Testaments, and most notably from Christ Himself, we too can learn to pray in an authentic, personal way. In fact, Fr. Bunge sees this learning to pray as a requirement, rather than a personal preference, if the Faith is not to “evaporate” in the West.

The book is a case for Tradition. Those who desire fellowship with God can never disregard those who went before them in fellowship with God. The Apostles themselves were expected to hold fast to “the good thing committed to thy trust.”

One good thing to hold fast to are the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament, which were adopted by the early Church and read as prophesies of Christ. The Psalms are the most-quoted Old Testament writings in the New Testament, and they have for centuries been the backbone of the Liturgy of the Hours and its shorter forms, as read by religious as well as laymen.

The beauty of this book is its integration of all that comprises personal prayer: what to pray (the Psalms are one example from Scripture), where to pray, when to pray, and — most interestingly — the gestures of prayer. If all this seems too formal for private, personal prayer, it is good to remember that it is God we address when we pray. Humility is always the prime virtue of the one who prays.

Personal prayer is done only when we are alone, following the evangelist Matthew, who wrote: “When you pray, go into your room.” That is what Jesus did. He took part in the public prayer of the synagogue, and He also habitually withdrew from the public and from His disciples to pray alone. Peter followed the example of his Lord. The desert Fathers believed that in solitary prayer they avoided distraction, but also, more importantly, they learned that things occur between Creator and creature that by their very nature are not meant for the eyes and ears of others.

Here a word should be said in appreciation of the many pen and ink drawings by Francesco Riganti that illuminate this book. They perfectly coordinate with the author’s points about prayer, depicting iconographically the many attitudes and gestures of prayer from patristic times.

If we expect to pray as the Fathers did, we should settle on a solitary place for personal prayer, then orient ourselves to the east. Christians from time immemorial have faced east to pray, and yet, in modern times, this idea is virtually lost to them. When a Christian prays facing east, he turns from the evil one to God, recalling his own Baptism.

Bunge also treats the saying of Christ to “pray always,” and how this can be achieved in one way by the frequent use throughout the day of ejaculatory prayers such as “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It will surprise the uninitiated to learn that private prayers, according to the Fathers, ought to be prayed in an audible voice, as the very words of the Psalms suggest the Psalmist is doing. The voice tends to focus our attention, and, even more importantly, it expresses our relationship to a real and present God who is listening — not to an abstract god of philosophy. Finally, and again surprisingly to modern man, not only God hears our voice; the evil one does too, and he is frightened away (at last, violence to good purpose!).

With all of this it is good to be reminded of our ultimate goal in prayer: silence of the heart. Evagrius calls this state “a conversation of the intellect with God without any mediation whatsoever.” This ascent in the spiritual life is not obtained by any technique. It is man simply doing his part, and then God so “inclining” Himself toward man.

To his credit, Bunge does not minimize any traditions so as to appeal to the modern lifestyle. He recommends morning and evening times for personal prayer in a special place that allows us to face east and view a crucifix and any other icons we wish, with our Scripture and other prayer aids at hand. He also suggests sealing ourselves with the Sign of the Cross; standing to pray Psalms, deciding how many to pray at a time (the early desert Fathers prayed 12); and bending the knee at certain times, especially to ask forgiveness of God. Throughout the day, the Our Father and ejaculations are excellent forms of prayer.

Bunge’s book is a modern-day summons to return, before the faith “evaporates,” to personal prayer as practiced by those who went before us in fellowship with God.

- Rosemary Lunardini



The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.  By David Carlin. Sophia Institute Press. 407 pages. $24.95.

Can anything good come out of sociology? Yes! David Carlin, a professor of philosophy and sociology in Rhode Island, and a former state senator, has written a book about our well-known woes in the Church which is fresh, thought provoking, and so well crafted that I could hardly put it down.

Employing the tools of sociology, Carlin shows why a variety of factors have seemingly doomed the Catholic Church in America (but not the whole world) to defeat. Our hope lies not in fanciful wishes for a return to the past or in thinking that the gates of Hell will not prevail in the American Church if we do nothing. Our hope, rather, lies in mounting a campaign for survival comparable in strength to the reforms of Trent or to the resistance of Polish Catholics under Communist rule.

One would think that no one could come up with new reasons for the sorry state of our Church in America. Doubtless many readers of the NOR, like myself, attribute this tragedy primarily to an intellectual apostasy. While Carlin gives plenty of space to such considerations, there is newness in his analysis.

Carlin also focuses on how a unity of thought and morals, even amid doctrinal disagreements, made it possible to call our nation “Christian” in earlier times. Gradually, the consensus broadened to include upwardly mobile Catholics and then Jews, so that the description “Judeo-Christian” came more and more into use.

But by the 1960s, with the landmark anti-school-prayer decision, the only value system that could contain the contradictory philosophies of life in America would become that of private conscience and the value of “tolerance.” Even belief in God was no longer a common denominator.

In the meantime, the hippie rebellion against traditional values, and the Sexual Revolution, would prepare the way for a secularist mentality favorable to dissent in the Church after Vatican II.

Get Carlin’s book. It will give you fresh insights into the nature of the battle ahead.

- Ronda Chervin



'Cha'.  By Raymond A. Devlin, S.J. Nenagh Books (Box 425, Lafayette CA 94549-0425). 237 pages. $15.

When he was just seven years old growing up in San Francisco, James Joseph Devlin came upon a pair of bullies swinging a little boy back and forth over a small street fire. When he told them to stop, they ignored him, but the beating he administered caused them to end the cruelty and run for their lives.

The future Jesuit told his mother about the incident, and, smiling, she said, “Joe, you always stick up for the underdog and that’s a good thing.”

Rose Devlin never realized how prophetic her comment would be as her oldest son, the late Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., would go from the streets of his hometown to war-torn Vietnam, and later to Thailand, to become a hero to thousands who were touched by, and still remember to this day, his love and deep faith. He never forgot to stick up for the underdog, even at the risk of death.

In a recently published biography titled ‘Cha,’ written by his brother, Fr. Raymond A. Devlin, S.J., one can trace the remarkable career of one of the greatest of modern missionaries.

Fr. Joe (known to the Vietnamese as “Cha” — “Father”) was raised in a loving family of four sons and one daughter by devoted parents who instilled in their children a deep concern for and affection toward others, especially the less fortunate.

An outstanding student and athlete, Fr. Joe soon realized that he had a calling to serve his Maker and people of all races in any part of the world. He developed a deep interest in the worsening situation in the Far East while helping immigrant farm workers and their families in Utah.

In 1970 this calling took him to Southeast Asia, at the time one of the most dangerous places on earth, where a long and bitter war was underway. He went not with a gun and bayonet but as an unpaid volunteer who felt impelled to serve and succor the noncombatant victims of this bloody conflict. For five years he endured the hardships of war and poverty, and the specter of being targeted for assassination by the Vietcong. He lived side by side with the poorest of peasants, eating their meager food, sleeping in makeshift lean-tos, and ministering to their spiritual and material needs. With what little money he had, and with help from family and friends in the States, he did much to alleviate their pain and suffering.

Physician Ed Bradley agreed to join Fr. Joe for a month, and together they opened a small medical clinic in Tram Chim. In those four weeks, Dr. Bradley instructed Fr. Joe on being a paramedic who could, in the absence of a doctor, provide basic care and recognize cases that require hospital care.

Shortly after returning to America, Dr. Bradley joined the Jesuit Order and was ordained a priest.

Fr. Joe came home in 1975 to serve as a chaplain to refugees in southern California, but could not resist his strong desire to return to the Orient, this time to Thailand, to care for the Vietnamese boat people who were fleeing for their lives as the Communists advanced on Saigon. The boat people sailed in flimsy, overcrowded crafts, in all kinds of weather, under constant attack by Thai pirates who killed them, took their women and girls, and sank their boats.

In Thailand, Fr. Joe built a two-story shelter for unaccompanied children whose parents were dead or stranded in Vietnam. He continued to serve these pathetic refugees until 1987.

After a variety of assignments in the States, he served the last four years of his life at Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara, California, where hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants found him, and worshiped at his Masses.

More than 1,000 people of all ages jammed the small church in the heart of Silicon Valley for his funeral Mass in 1998, to say “thank you” to Cha and sing this amazing priest to his rest.

- Arthur J. Brew





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