Burns and Oates and Continuum have done a singular service by making available to North American readers the work of Noel Dermot O’Donoghue who was a lecturer in Philosophical Theology and Director of Studies in the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh until he retired in 1988. Anyone who has read other books by O’Donoghue will recognize in the book under review the lively, creative, imaginative and even at times whimsical mind of a scholar who was an incisive reader of the three Carmelite doctors of the church, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux to whom are devoted the three parts of this book. Unfortunately O’Donoghue’s death in 2006 means an end to further contributions from a mind that continued its liveliness far into retirement.
O’Donoghue is an excellent guide to the writings of these Carmelite doctors of the church. He walks through their texts with insights that even seasoned readers will find enlightening. He was especially helpful to the modern reader with his ability to bring earlier language into a modern idiom. Thus he regularly uses the word receptive where Teresa and John used pasivamente or pasivo (passive) to denote the gratuity of mystical graces. O’Donoghue also saw the Carmelite authors in the context of broader philosophical, theological and literary contexts that has enabled him to see meaning that others have not previously unearthed.
There are a few small miscues in Adventures. Rabbi Aquiba came from the second century AD not BC (p. 112) Moreover, O’Donoghue regularly refers to the commentary on the poem “Dark Night” when it is preferable to speak of both poem and commentary as merely Dark Night following John of the Cross’ own regular use of Noche oscura. On p. 180 the author says that John of the Cross was declared as patron of Spanish poets in 1952. That was the action of the Spanish Ministry of National Education. O’Donoghue could have added that Pope John Paul II designated John of the Cross patron of Spanish poets and song writers in 1993. I would take issue with O’Donoghue’s statement that John of the Cross”…stood in fear of the Holy Inquisition all his life….” (p. 139) I know of no evidence to support that convition. My own reading is that John was quite detached from the fear that others may have experienced about the Spanish Inquisition; it is good to keep in mind that Spain had a Spanish Inquisition created by Spanish political leaders for political ends such as achieving national unity in a very diverse peninsula.
I highly recommend O’Donoghue’s Adventures in Prayer as a genuine adventure in reading Carmelite classics with the guidance of a gifted scholar who has engaged texts with rare verve and uncommon insight. I expect that anyone who reads this text will want to sample other books by this learned Irishman who spent much of his life in Scotland teaching and writing with a truly creative imagination.