Thomas Ryan is currently a coordinator for the Paulist Office of Ecumenism in New York City and his book reflects his long-standing interest in enlarging Christian practices by drawing from other faith traditions. In Prayer of Heart and Body he is concerned specifically with a holistic spirituality which tends to both flesh and spirit through the practices of meditation and yoga. The book is intended to complement an earlier work, Disciplines for Christian Living: Interfaith Perspectives (1993), where he drew from various world religions in mapping out a way to live a vibrant Christian life.
This practical book first appearing in 1995 was a response to the needs and desires of people who wanted relief from the stress that increasingly beset them and so were turning in growing numbers to the practices of Eastern religions. If anything, the need for such a work has only increased in a post September 11th world and in the face of deepening tensions between East and West. The practice of yoga, Ryan argues, helps Westerners come to a healthier appreciation of human bodiliness through its focus on breathing and postures as preparation for deep meditation. "Yoga is a gentle way to get people back in touch with their bodies" (p. 8). The practice of meditation common to both East and West assumes even more importance today for the transformation and relaxation response it produces. But Ryan accentuates the spiritual benefits of both practices as they both move the practictioner to a fuller awareness of and receptivity to divine presence and action.
In Part I of the book, Ryan looks in detail at meditation and contrasts the practice he wants to explore with Ignatian and Carmelite meditation which make use of reason and imagination. His interest is in the imageless, nondiscursive approach to meditation found in John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing and oftentimes called contemplation. As he notes, this approach to prayer has become more common through the effective promotion of centering prayer by Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington and the formation of Christian meditation groups and a contemplative outreach by John Main and his followers. There are two forms of this type of meditation found within Christianity and Eastern religions and both involve focusing one's awareness. In a concentrative type of meditation the awareness is restricted to one thing to the exclusion of everything else. In an awareness or uncovering type of meditation awareness is open to everything that is happening in a person. Ryan, using Christian authors, discusses the various dimensions of the concentrative approach to meditation.
In a very clear presentation of the kataphatic and apaphatic approaches to spiritual reality, Ryan argues for the necessary presence of both in people's spiritual lives but along with a number of spiritual authorities calls for greater openness to the apaphatic and contemplative approach to life. Symeon the New Theologian, Karl Rahner, and Thomas Merton are among those he summons for testimony on the importance of developing the mystical and contemplative dimension of one's self. John of the Cross and others provide a developmental perspective on how one moves toward more contemplative prayer practices. Perhaps, the only thing lacking in this well-honed exploration is a caveat that contemplative meditation may be countraindicated for those with a more serious self-pathology.
Ryan does an excellent job in detailing how one should go about the actual practice of Christian meditation. He treats such practical questions as how much time to spend, what posture to assume, how to breathe properly, and how frequently one should meditate. Often he draws from Eastern religions to underscore an important point or to indicate an effective practice. For instance, in a chapter dealing with distractions during meditation, he notes: "Some people integrate the technique of 'mental noting' from Buddhist vipassana meditation and find it very effective in disengaging from a passing thought which has 'hooked' them" (p. 90).
Some will find the real value of Ryan's book in the second part which is a clear and concise introduction to the practice of yoga. In bringing together Christianity and Eastern religions and, more specifically, Christian meditation and yoga, Ryan sees a better spiritual balance emerging in which reason is balanced with intuition, activism with receptive passivity, mind with body. As Ryan reminds his readers, yoga is an ancient practice which both engages the body and prepares for meditation. His particular interest is in hatha yoga which involves physical postures, breath control and mental focusing and leads to meditation. Although these yoga practices appear superficially as breathing techniques and stretching exercises, "their purpose is to bring us to a state of inner quiet, rebalancing the opposing forces within us . . . ." (p. 138).
Ryan's proposal is that yoga can help Christians pray. Inasmuch as it brings about a focused awareness, it leads to an intuitive awareness of the Divine Presence at our very center. He shows how yoga and meditation can work together for the spiritual benefit of the practitioner. The third part of the book is in fact a series of appendices which make detailed recommendations about both the practice of yoga and Christian meditation. These are accompanied by helpful illustrations of the various postures or stretching positions. The book is an excellent resource for those who are inspired to bring about a greater harmony between body and spirit. In these days of increased tension between East and West, it can serve as a guide for integrating the wisdom of the East and West in one's spiritual life.