Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Review: Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition

Published by Ignatius Press

A great book recommended to me by a friend of mine Marco De Vinha,  I did not have to time to read the book so I asked Marco to write a review, I must say he did an excellent job.
I came upon Fr. Bunge quite by chance (or would it be Providence?). He was mentioned in passing on a program on Ancient Faith Radio, in relation to his book on Rublev's icon of the Trinity. I then googled his name and found an article with an excerpt from his book on personal prayer. What I read was very much in line with what I have been looking for, so I figured I might as well take the risk and buy the book.

Fr. Bunge offers a solution to the Christian West's current spiritual dryness - a return to its practices, a reclaiming of its identity. According to Fr. Bunge, "faith 'evaporates' when it is not practiced in accord with its essence", and Christian praxis is not just "social action" (though this is one of the facets of agape) since it can become something merely exterior or even a subtle form of acedia. He also points out something often neglected (and sometimes even denied) in today's world: that the apostolic unwritten traditions have just as much weight as the written ones. Another point: that the "contemplative life" is not opposed to the "active life"; they are simply different stages on the spiritual path, and that they are always present to a greater or lesser degree. Also clarified is the correct order in what pertains to theory and practice. Currently we understand that theory is subservient to practice; the Fathers well knew that it is actually the other way around: all "practice" is only a means to "theory", which is the knowledge of God. Fr. Bunge dedicates a sub-chapter to explaining just what does it mean for a Christian to say that he is "spiritual". This is a much welcomed explanation! With the word "spiritual" tossed about so casually nowadays one sometimes wonders what it actually means. Fr. Gabriel leaves no doubts: according to Scripture and the Fathers, the "spiritual man" (pneumaticos) is one who is taught by the Person of the Holy Spirit, in whom the Spirit dwells; any other claims of being spiritual are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but are relative to the "natural man" (psychicos), who is led simply by the "unaided soul". In this book one learns also about the authority of tradition, and why one cannot ignore the sacred traditions handed down to us: they are tried and true ways of attaining salvation, i.e., of entering into a living communion with God. Another welcome point made in the book is the role of the body in prayer. Though it seems to have been lost to us (at least in the West), the Fathers well knew that the body plays an important role in prayer since man is not just spirit, but body AND spirit. Yet the Christian does not have "methods" for prayer as Eastern religions do since it is the Holy Spirit that prays within; rather the body reflects the spiritual realities in prayer. We are then given a list of a number of practices as well as their rich theological meaning. One also learns some practical methods for dealing with demons.

I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone trying to discover what it means to truly be a Christian, to truly pray as a Christian. It has opened up my eyes to many things which I had previously overlooked. I only regret that I had not heard of Fr. Gabriel before and that it had to be an Eastern Orthodox mentioning him. Not that I have anything against the EO, much to the contrary, but that he should be ignored by his fellow Roman Catholics is quite strange. God bless Fr. Bunge as well as all those that help to bring us pack to our Patristic heritage. 
Read the original review (here) at Amazon.  

Photo with short bio and book description at Ignatius Insight (here)