Tomas ŠPIDLIK. Prayer, The Spirituality of the Christian East, Volume 2 . Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (Cistercian Studies, 206), 2005. Paperback, 540 pp. $39.95. ISBN-: 978-0879077068 Reviewed by Robert P. MARKO, Aquinas College, Grand Rapid, MI 49506
Given the historical breadth extending back to the first centuries of Christianity and the great diversity of cultural and linguistic traditions, few Western theologians have a rudimentary knowledge of, let alone the necessary expertise to address the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. Tomas Špidlík , the late Czech Jesuit cardinal, is widely acknowledged as a refreshing, careful and innovative scholarly exception. His Prayer, The Spirituality of the Christian East, Volume 2 develops chapters 12 and 13 of Špidlík's earlier The Spirituality of the Christian East: A Systematic Handbook for he notes in his sequel, "most of the writings of this (Eastern) spiritual tradition are on prayer." (xiii)
Chapter 1 presents an overview of the sources within the tradition under the categories of the Fathers and spiritual writers, liturgical documents and poetic hymnology. One comes away inundated with not just the wealth of material in the Christian East but the variety of traditions — not just Byzantine Greek and Slavic but Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopian works. Chapter 2 lays the ground work by addressing the Divine-human dialogue and offers some rudimentary terminology, definitions and types of prayer as particular to the East. For example, S. reflects on the significance of angels in prayer, liturgy and discernment — not a concern of the Western tradition.
Chapters 3 through 9 consider prayer as supplication, bodily prayer, liturgical prayer, meditative reading, contemplation, mysticism and disposition for prayer. S. notes that "no attempt will be made to follow any system than that suggested by the chapter divisions, by subject matter or by the documents presented." (xv) He does not disappoint; each of the chapters is divided into thematic subdivisions where in his terse narrative he relates the topics to diverse Eastern Christian works and spiritual masters. However, S. does not critique them systematically or even nuance at length significant differences in approaches . Clear transition and progression from one chapter to the next is also absent. Be that as it may, the work serves as an impressive handbook or reference work and compendium on prayer in the Eastern spiritual tradition. There are thorough bibliographical notes following each chapter. Following a short summary conclusion in chapter 11, the author provides appendixes on frequently use source citations and outstanding select bibliography of both general works on the Eastern tradition on prayer as well as specific chapter themes. Exceptional topic and name indexes complete the work.
Chapter 10 is a superb exploration of hesychasm, tracing its meaning, connection to the Jesus Prayer and how this mystical prayer method functions on the psychosomatic level. While one may wish to hear more on the Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian debate of the fourteenth century, given the limitations of a less than 40 page chapter, one can find one of the finest condensed introductions to the practice. S identifies the import of key figures before Palamas, such as Evagrius of Pontus and Symeon the New Theologian, and considers hesychasm's connection with the Jesus Prayer as found in the Candid Narratives of a Russian Pilgrim (known popularly through Salinger's Franny and Zooey) and modern Russian commentary. I personally appreciated how S. situated any exaggerated psychosomatic technique for hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer in proper perspective Prudently, he advises, "Among the dangers that threaten the spiritual person when using any method, the most insidious is this: that in the grip of being scrupulously faithful to method, we put this concern so squarely in the center of our attention that we forget the respect we owe God to whom we pray and whose will we seek." (349) This is sound prudent advice for any spirituality or prayer, Eastern or Western.
In conclusion, S. presents a fine extensive compendium for those who are already somewhat familiar with the treasure of the Eastern spiritual tradition on prayer. Given the bibliography and indices it will best serve as a splendid reference but not as a first text. For an introductory course in Eastern Christian spirituality I would recommend his The Spirituality of the Christian East: A Systematic Handbook(1986) a wider range readable text that is more “systematic” and a better “handbook .” Both these volumes, however, ought to be updated with the scholarship of the last 25 years. For example, I recommend more recent work done on one of S.'s most quoted sources, Evagrius of Pontus by Dysinger, Sinkewicz, and Bunge . Be that as it may, the text as many primary sources and even secondary works on Eastern spiritual tradition does provide the reader an opportunity for prayerful lectio divina. Even here, though, I would recommend a later work of Špidlík, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary containing the wisdom of the monks and fathers for daily use with an excellent prologue by the author. As Tomas Špidlík reminds us in the conclusion quoting Theophane the Recluse, “ prayer is the quickening of the spirit, in some way its deification." (367)