PRAYING WITH THE EARTH: A Prayerbook for Peace. By John Philip Newell. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Xiii + 58 pages.
We live in a time of war and conflict. This is especially apparent in the overlapping worlds of Jew, Christian, and Muslim. These children of Abraham, by his two wives, Sarah and Hagar, find it difficult to experience peace, and yet the call to peace is inherent in the Abrahamic tradition. The dilemma we face is that despite calls to peace, the followers of these faiths frequently have not embraced this part of the broader tradition of Shalom/Salaam.
For Christians, the call to peace is rooted in Jesus’ words that peacemakers are blessed and born of God. My sense is that this blessing extends to all who would make peace, whether explicit followers of Jesus or not. The question is how do we work for peace? As people of faith, whatever our tradition, it seems apparent that prayer would be a key ingredient in this work. But how shall we pray?
In answer to this question, a beautifully illustrated and written book has been provided us by Philip John Newell. Newell is a minister of the Church of Scotland, former warden of the Iona Abbey, and currently the Companion Theologian for the American Spirituality Centre of Casa del Sol of New Mexico. It was in the context of a spirituality course that he was teaching with his wife at Casa del Sol with a Sufi Muslim teacher and a Jewish Rabbi that this prayerbook emerged. Using his skills as a poet, Newell has brought to us a prayerbook that draws on the texts and traditions of all three traditions.
The book offers prayers for morning and evening set out over the period of one week, beginning with Sunday and ending on Saturday. Each of these periods of prayer, morning and evening is set out in a particular pattern, which begins with a recitation of one of Jesus’ beatitudes, which Newell has retranslated. The same beatitude is used in both the morning and the evening session of prayer, the first of which (for Sunday) reads: “Blessed are those who know their need for theirs is the grace of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This blessing is followed by a prayer of awareness and then an invitation to be still and aware. This section is followed by three excerpts or verses from the three scriptures used in the book – the Psalms (Hebrew Bible), the Gospel of Matthew (New Testament) and the Qur’an. Each excerpt is but one sentence in length, but this is sufficient to call us to reflection on the matters of peace. After the first two statements, the reader is invited to pause, and then after the reading from the Qur’an, there is an invitation to silence. This is followed by a Prayer for the Life of the world that reflects these texts. Finally after an invitation to offer silent prayers for peace, there is a closing “Prayer of Blessing.”
To give an example of the prayers that are present in this book, I offer his “Prayer for the Life of the World” from the Monday evening session:
Our heart is comforted
in its awareness of You
Soul within our soul
Life within all life.
Our heart is comforted
in remembering You
Giver of this day
Gift of every moment.
May we be bearers of comfort.
May we be strong in our soul
to cry at the wrongs of nations
to weep with the bleeding earth
to mourn with those who mourn this night
in the loss of life and lands
in the loss of dreams and hope
May we be strong in our soul this night. (p. 15).
Interspersed among these prayers is artwork that reflects these three traditions. These include the 14th Century Spanish Golden Haggadah, which is an illuminated manuscript of the Passover ritual. There are also illustrations from the Lindisfarene Gospels (7th century Britain) and a 14th century Egyptian carpet and a mosaic from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, which blends the artistry of all three traditions.
For all who pray for peace, especially across inter-religious lines, this is a true gift. I extend my appreciation to the people at Eerdmans for sharing this small but powerful book with me, so that I might share it with others who share the desire for peace on this earth. Newell is to be commended for his insightful blending of these traditions, not in a syncretistic manner, but in a way that allows the three traditions to speak in one voice concerning the common hope of peace.