A few luminous seconds

A real devotional book is one that you can live with year after year and that never stales or never fails to speak to some needs in your life.

Douglas V. Steere wrote those words near the end of Prayer and Worship, one of a handful of devotional books he authored. By Steere’s definition, Prayer and Worship is a real devotional book. Whenever I start over, which is frequently, I find Prayer and Worship waiting for me. Employing insight and a cloud of witnesses, it reintroduces me to the fundamental practices of a devotional life.

Steere, who succeeded fellow Quaker Rufus Jones as a philosophy professor at Haverford College, is not a great proponent of structure in prayer. He accepts a wide range of means to communion with God, however, and he argues in his introduction for “a much-needed psychology of the deeper reaches of life.” He disagrees with those who dismiss visual aids in prayer as idolatry and who dismiss selective meditation as autosuggestion.

Steere sees such structure as scaffolding – a means to an end – and is more interested in the broader areas of regular practice “that serve to arouse this spiritual nimbleness and swiftness and vivacity of devotion.” Prayer and Worship is divided into three areas of this practice: private prayer, corporate worship, and devotional reading. Each section nudges us on with examples from history and literature. Steere seems never to forget that devotion comes from the heart and not from a regimented practice or method.

One of Steere’s comparisons struck me this morning, and I never got beyond it in my reading. Steere compares the mind subject to silent prayer with the mind of an author. He describes the state of an author’s unfinished, chaotic manuscript just after his death:

The materials were all there…. But the mind that was to have brooded over this mass, this heap – the mind that would at some moment have seen a simple line dart through all of these materials, make most of them superfluous, underline the few remaining, and produce out of it all a living unity – this mind was withdrawn by death.

Silent prayer does for our lives what the author was to have done with his manuscript. “It restores us to the creative matrix.”

There is freshness and openness in Steere’s thinking that befits a wide-ranging mind whose heart early on joined itself with a small sect of Christianity. Steere was an ecumenicist, andPrayer and Worship draws from the examples of many sects and faiths. Steere found in Quakerism the spiritual roots and the humility and flexibility of expression that fitted his mind and heart.

[picture of Steere]This union of mind and heart is most evident in the book’s final section, which amounts to an energetic and inclusive introduction to Christian devotional reading. Steere felicitously discusses the virtues of works as disparate as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Steere suggests how to approach different devotional classics and points out what to look for in the ones he guides us toward. For instance, he hopes the reader of Augustine’s Confessions will discover “how readily and how naturally the writer of a devotional book can flow from precise description into the most passionate prayer and then on into our narrative again without any note of artificiality whatsoever.”

Along the way, Steere offers simple advice on how to read devotional books in general. Paraphrasing Keyserling, Steere believes “that in a whole lifetime we only have a few luminous seconds of insight.” When one comes, declare a holiday. Don’t rush to finish the insightful book:

To hurry on in order to finish the book, to take up the book again “for the purpose of scaring away one’s own original thoughts,” is, as Schopenhauer once remarked, a “sin against the holy spirit.”

There is no need to become the master of all of the works Steere mentions, either. “Nowhere does novelty count for so little as in devotional reading,” he writes.

With the exception of the unusual depth of devotion one feels in his writing, most aspects of Steere’s book may lead one to believe that it was recently published. For instance, Prayer and Worship describes the business and loquacity of our society as the enemies of devotion. Prayer and Worship is the third devotional book that I have read from the 1930’s and 1940’s that inveighs against radio. What would these writers think about the distractions of our present age!

Prayer and Worship is the middle book in a volume entitled The Religious Life, an anthology of three small devotional books by different authors. The books were first published separately in a series in 1939, and the present hardbound anthology was published in 1953. A seventy-seven-page paperback edition of Prayer and Worship is in print, but its editor saw fit to change historical references found in the original version in order to make it more relevant to post-World War II America, presumably. The editing manages to disturb the feel of the original considerably. Fortunately, copies of the 1953 volume can still be found at several used book sites on the Internet. (Links to two of them are here and here.)