LISTENING FOR TRUTH: PRAYING OUR WAY TO VIRTUE

by James Keating Liguori, 2002 96 pages, $6.95 To order: (800) 325-9521 or http://www.liguori.org

A couple of years ago, a slender book titled The Prayer of Jabez took the publishing world by storm. Written by an evangelical Protestant, the book claimed that an obscure Old Testament prayer “contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.” The incredible success of that book indicated that there is a deep hunger for a life of prayer as well as sad confusion about the actual nature and purpose of prayer.

Listening for Truth is a slim book on prayer worth reading. Its author, Dr. James Keating, is a moral theologian and a deacon, and is well qualified to write a thoughtful and challenging work about prayer and the moral life. Keating admits that “there are thousands of descriptions of prayer in thousands, maybe millions, of books and essays. What characterizes my approach in this book, however, is that I am going to describe prayer from a perspective of growing in moral virtue. Of course, prayer cannot be manipulated for our ends, but like communicating with one's spouse, it can serve the purpose of deepening communion with your beloved regardless of the specific topic at hand.”

In just fewer than 100 pages, Keating shows how prayer is an essential need for every Christian; through prayer the believer can honestly assess his sins and failings and can form his conscience with truth. This leads to growth in virtue and a closer communion with virtue's source. “Prayer, whether offered as an individual or as a community in a liturgical setting, is the seeking of communion with God,” writes Keating. “The moral life also seeks communion, but its first purpose is to facilitate communion with what is morally good, not with what is ultimately good, namely, God. But the two are not opposed in any way. In fact, the more one grows in moral goodness the more one seeks completion in what is ultimate.”

Unlike The Prayer of Jabez, Keating focuses on the reality of sin, and the constant battles the Christian faces with self-absorption, pride and spiritual infidelity. Prayer that ignores the inner state is bound to fail. “The real enlightened ones are those who see how deeply they jeopardize their own human dignity through sin,” he writes. In a similar fashion, private prayer without connection to the liturgical, communal prayer of the Church is seriously lacking. Prayer is not a single strand connecting us to God but is part of an entire fabric binding together the Body of Christ: “We come to learn what is good because we are instructed by indwelling truth, the living Spirit of God. This instruction, however, needs to be confirmed by the Church. Thus personal prayer is contextualized within communal prayer and discernment.”

Prayer, ultimately, is the transforming act of coming into fuller communion with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Moral transformation comes as our prayers more deeply align with the work and person of Jesus Christ. “Moral conversion occurs,” Keating emphasizes,

“when we lovingly participate in the self-offering of Jesus upon the cross and his Father's response to that act of love in raising Christ from the dead.” As we die to our faults and sins and allow God to change us, we become more like Christ: “The moral life is the resurrected life; it is the life of sharing in the power of Christ's resurrection.” In the end, “Christ is virtue.”

Writing with a warm and engaging style, Keating has penned a book based squarely on sound spiritual and moral theology, mixed with insights taken from psychology and everyday living. Though it might not top the bestseller charts, Listening for Truth provides solid insights into prayer and the moral life, free of sensationalism and gimmicks.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Envoy magazine, writes from Eugene, Oregon.