By Kathy Berken
When I’d get off track, my mother used to say, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”
In the Sept. 14, 2017, issue of this paper, CNS reporter Rachelle Linner wrote a brief review of Sister Joyce Rupp’s 2017 book, “Prayer Seeds,” which I am here to challenge.
Linner’s review, rightly her own opinion, left me feeling frustrated and upset because she based it on a strictly traditional Catholic view of prayer and spirituality and dismissed it for not living up to those standards.
I’ll credit Linner for accurately describing Prayer Seeds’ general purposes (prayer groups, communal retreats or gatherings, individual meditation) and its general content (guided reflections, poetry, prose, prayers for liturgical seasons and feasts, and critical moments in our lives). But she quickly rejected the book as “disappointing,” that it showed “no hint” of what tradition teaches, that prayer must point to God, and she — I think, incorrectly — contends that Prayer Seeds “points to ourselves instead.”
Linner also used language that I think can be misleading and unfair. She wrote that Prayer Seeds would appeal to people “who are spiritual but not religious,” noting images of God that included “Divine Mother,” “Compassionate One,” “Divine Guest,” “Holy Mystery,” and others, adding that Sr. Rupp’s writing is “frequently sentimental and romanticized.”
Honestly, Linner’s review does a great disservice to Sr. Rupp’s thoughtful and well-designed book, and I also think Linner offers a too-narrow notion of prayer, of images of God, and of the nature of spirituality.
The phrase “spiritual but not religious” usually describes people who do not adhere to established religious doctrines or practices, but still believe that they are spiritual persons. I agree that many items in Prayer Seeds are not necessarily attached to any particular mainstream religion, but rather than being less significant or powerful, they are simply different.
Using alternate images of God can stir our religious imaginations and encourage us to study the myriad images of God in Scripture. One of the first things I ask people who come to me for spiritual direction is what is their image of God. I’ve learned that there are as many different images of God as there are people to describe them.
The prayers and rituals in Prayer Seeds do, in fact, completely point to God, not to us, as Linner thinks. Throughout, the prayers include petition, gratitude and praise, asking God to help us be better, thanking and praising God for all our blessings. I contend that God is everywhere, which means God lives and works in and through us and all of creation. I firmly believe that prayer is a vehicle that allows us to experience God, fully and completely, in the present, right now. This has consistently been Sr. Rupp’s message in her books and conferences for decades, and Prayer Seeds is no exception.
Linner’s commentary on spirituality is lacking: “Certainly there are times when we all need comfort, affirmation and compassionate support, but this is an insufficient basis for a spiritual life.” Sr. Rupp’s book is more than prayers and rituals for times when we need comfort. Content includes prayers for Advent, Christmas, All Saints/Souls, Lent, Easter, Mary, Pentecost and sacraments. All of our experiences add to our spiritual lives, and I strongly believe that our spirituality grows from our relationship with God, however we imagine God, and however we are in relationship with God. Our religious life is the way we practice our spirituality, and our humanity in all its complexities is where we can find God most intimately.
I am in relationship with God whom I imagine as utterly Infinite and Other. The prayer forms I use to make me more aware of the presence of God are indeed holy. Sr. Rupp’s Prayer Seeds is a diverse compendium of ways to help us experience the presence of God.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)