New Book Presents Prayer in Proper Terms

BOOK PICK: Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer

(photo: Cropped book cover)

Contemplative Enigmas

Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer

Ignatius Press, 2020

281 pages, $17.95

To order: or (800) 651-1531 (online discounts available)


God works in mysterious ways or, as Father Donald Haggerty puts it, God “speaks in the coincidences found in events, at times dramatically, at other times more quietly.” When the Register asked me to review this book I declined, saying prayer and spirituality were not my expertise. When it came anyway, I took it as a sign I ought to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. You should, too.

Father Haggerty, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, has written several books on prayer, but the title of this, his latest, might throw you off. This is not a book aimed at people locked away in cloisters: Father Haggerty even admits that “in recent times a healthy spiritual awareness that a contemplative quality in life is an absolute necessity if a serious pursuit of God is to be sustained over the long course of a life.”

At the same time, this book takes prayer seriously. It’s not a “technique” of prayer, some “10 Easy Steps to Praying Better.” It’s a series of meditations about prayer — serious prayer — prayer that is not just a laundry list of “I need” and an occasional “Thank you.” Prayer is a gradual awakening, through God’s grace, to a personal relationship with and self-sacrifice for Jesus Christ.

“…[T]he great truth at the heart of prayer [is] the One who is addressed in prayer,” the author writes. “The holy presence of God hiding in prayer begins to show itself, and then a curtain lifts, changing everything. On that day, the spoken words of prayer seem as if to elevate and climb over a wall, carrying the soul into an inner chamber where a different communication now becomes possible. All becomes new in that interior location. An awareness crystallizes that God is in truth presence, listening to words and to the soul’s silence. This realization of Our Lord’s actual presence alters prayer irrevocably. Words that for years were staid and lifeless are now directed towards a destination in the heart of God.”

That said, Father Haggerty devotes far more space in this book to the “dark night of the soul,” to the expectation that prayer is something to be persevered in, not as an obligation but because of our passion for a relation, without expecting that God will provide the bells and whistles of consolation. God is, in the end, God. Our encounter with him is on his terms. We need to adapt to him whom we love, not the other way around.

If we feel bereft of God’s presence in our prayer, Father Haggerty has good advice: get ye to a church, before the Blessed Sacrament, where God is, yet (still) hidden. Eucharistic (and Marian) elements are regularly found in this book. (Of course, amid the coronavirus pandemic, adoration will have to be done via livestream online or via TV on EWTN.)

Awareness of God’s constant presence (but not its constantly felt presence) leads to another central theme in this book: silence. Silence — the ability to stop talking, to stop ... period, and to listen for God — is prerequisite to serious prayer. Yet, as Father Haggerty notes, our world excels at impairing our ability to be silent. His thoughts about our need for a pseudo-“companion presence” in tech devices (p. 73) and how we might be eroding our children’s ability to pray because of them (pp. 268-69) are worth considering. But they’re only mentioned in passing, against the backdrop of a deeper vision of what serious prayer entails.

This book deserves slow reading, reflection in prayer and implementation. It is not a beginner’s book to prayer, but it does provide many important correctives to the person who is already seeking to pray (knowing that “we do not pray as we ought”) and wanting to plunge deeper on the way to God. Ideally, it should be used in conjunction with a good confessor or spiritual director. Highly recommended.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

All views are exclusively his.

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