I found myself in a busy semester reading Paul Murray’s text with an unusually slow pace (even for my own plodding style). It is a brief little tome that could be polished off in a long afternoon, except that it begs to be chewed. The ten sections considering each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer average about eight pages of length, and each one seems to invite the reader at its conclusion to close the book and reflect, to pray the Lord’s Prayer in following days with new insight, one phrase at a time.
Murray reminds us and then gracefully demonstrates that “St Thomas Aquinas was a master of the spiritual life.” Though most of his work would remain inaccessible to Christian readers today, it is precisely in the Lord’s Prayer that we may gain a common ground for entry to the wisdom of the Angelic Doctor. Thus the book serves not only as a meditation on prayer but also as a kind of introduction to the thought of Aquinas by way of his spiritual insight, the notes being a useful resource for further study. The seven texts from which Murray draws his work span the length of Thomas’ career - from the 1252 commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to 1273 near the end of his life in the Compendium of Theology.
One beauty of the book is how it reveals Thomas’ understanding and willingness to address simple questions and to pull deeper insight from them. For example, why would we need to request that God “lead us not into temptation” - is God somehow a source of evil? Aquinas responds with a distinction between being tempted and being lead into it. To be tempted is a useful, though trying and painful, experience for perfecting our nature; it is in overcoming temptation that we gain our crown. Though “the world, the flesh, and the devil” tempt us, God uses these to help us make progress in virtue, Thomas explains. Far from a source of evil, God offers a means of advancement for strengthening our souls.
Certainly recommended for personal meditation, the text could also be useful as a reflective supplement for courses such as church history or spirituality.
From the medieval wisdom of Thomas we turn to very modern insights in the work of Brother Emmanuel of Taize. Love Imperfectly Known brings psychology into dialogue with theology, attempting to temper and transcend the insights we bring from our naturally limited and wounded human journey. The spontaneous representations of God referenced by the title are the unconscious psychological projections that believer and non-believer alike have accrued through life in reference to the term God. In four large sections, Br Emmanuel invites readers to reconsider certain existential and spiritual questions so as to reconceive of divine-human mutuality in love.
Part one considers the reality of evil and whether it contradicts the existence of a God of love. Drawing on the insights of Freud, Emmanuel attempts to move us from images of magical omnipotence to a kind of all-suffering omni-agape. An all-loving God cannot will evil, cannot permit evil, but in love must respect human freedom absolutely.
The second part takes up our own severity toward ourselves in guilt feelings and secret fears which we project into a demanding Divine judge. Emmanuel draws us beyond a superego impression of God to recognize the One who knows each of our wounds and understands evil as the consequence of the wounds of the human heart; a God who understands and so therefore forgives, who will wait for all eternity for each human heart to open to him.
A common problem today is taken up by part three in the concept of a God who is too distant and inscrutable to be concerned with any particular individual human being, let alone related through love or prayer. This section and part four, where images of divine tenderness are explored in feminine form, are the most successful portions of the text, partly because there is less dependence upon Freud and more appeal to experience. The
text is conceptual. Where it becomes concrete in examples it better achieves its goal of moving us toward new representations and understanding.
A useful feature of the book is its division of the argument into small subsections and the clear repetition of the line of development. The thirty-seven pages of endnotes are a worthy conversation on their own. Emmanuel writes gently but insistently of a beautiful vision. This text would be useful for parish discussion, personal reflection, or sampled for course discussions about images of God.