As well as introducing some guides that provide perspectives and principles for exploring great voices of the past, I want to offer some examples of works that try to make good use of them.
The easiest one to find is (ahem) my own. Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012) focuses on the topic of prayer. Personal prayer, that is, or private prayer; not the public prayers offered in worship. It looks at ten ways Christians have approached prayer, across the centuries and across the boundaries of traditions. Each of the ten has been important to Christians in some particular branch of Christianity, and each one is presented through the work of a major teacher from that tradition.
The book evolved first from living, then from scholarship, and finally from teaching. When my faith began to grow in high school I found myself looking for mentors in the practice of prayer, and finding them in centuries-old books. My long-dead mentors led me to life-giving ways to approach God. Eventually I found that historians called these old books “primary sources,” and that people who spent their time exploring primary sources would come to be called “historians.”
Then my academic work, particularly in the theological movements of the Reformation and the early centuries of Christianity, led to discovery of more approaches to prayer, more dead mentors, more growth. After graduate school and some years of ministry I noticed that the people and groups I talked to about prayer tended not to know much about the ways of prayer I had come to find so very helpful. A book possibility started to take shape in my mind.
My soon-to-be wife suggested that I teach a class on the topic as I worked on the book. Several years of teaching these ten approaches to prayer to seminarians proved to be crucial to the writing, as it helped me see how different kinds of people related to different kinds of prayer.
And now it is a really truly book. This gives me much to celebrate, but that is not quite the point.
The point is the book takes seriously the voices of the past, and it takes seriously the needs of the present.
There is a kind of practical ecumenism in the way the book listens to the past. One colleague in ministry suggested I really ought to more strongly favor my own Reformed tradition in my selection of voices–privilege the approaches my tradition says are “right” and back off a bit from those my tradition might be quick to criticize. My principle of selection has been very different from that. I have started with the assumption that those who claim the lordship of Christ are my sisters and brothers in the faith, and those who have had an influence in their own branch of the faith should be heard with respect. So the ten chapters include voices from Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Reformation Protestant traditions, as well as modern evangelical and charismatic voices.
In the treatment of the present there another kind of diversity. I am convinced that different kinds of people, different personalities or people in different circumstances, will need to pray differently. Introverts relate to their families differently than extroverts. Scholars relate to their friends differently from artists. Some people are only content when silent, and some cannot think unless they are talking. It would surprise me if people who relate to other people so differently would all be able to relate to God exactly the same way.
The dilemma is that most of us know very few options when it comes to prayer. We may have learned something from our pastor, or from a book, or from our family. But if what we know of prayer seems empty and meaningless, we are stuck. Some give up on prayer. Some give up on Christian prayer and look to for spiritual life in other religions and non-Christian spiritualities. Christian writers sometimes try to fill the gap by making up new ways to pray.
For myself (and for anyone I advise in the journey toward growth in Christ) it is far better to invest my time and energy in approaches to prayer that are deeply rooted in the faith experience of countless Christian people. If I try to make use of a technique thought up by someone just yesterday, I will not have the confidence that it can take me to genuine growth. I’m very open to learning from the wisdom of other faiths, even eager to do so, but when it comes to being in communion with God I want to go with teachers whose core commitments are the same as mine.
Before people give up on prayer or turn away from specifically Christian prayer, I want to let them know there are Christian ways to pray that they might find helpful from traditions they just don’t happen to know about. In one of these seemingly new but really very old ways to pray, they might find a genuinely Christian approach that fits them perfectly.
My hope is that the book will bring the various kinds of people in contact with the various kinds of prayer so that people can find ways to go deeper with Christ.