During my recent vacation to the North Carolina coast, I finished reading the Kindle edition of A School of Prayer, a collection of Wednesday audience talks given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI beginning in May 2011 and concluding in May 2012, just nine months before his retirement and the fascinating conclusion of his pontificate. I will candidly admit that I had no strong feeling of attachment or admiration for Benedict when he was pope, other than a vague sense of disappointment in his papacy and empathy for a man who seemed to me to be shy and overwhelmed. With that in mind, I did not have any extraordinary expectations for this book. I knew that Benedict had been an academic professor, but hadn’t anticipated that reading this book would be like taking a private course in prayer by a leading expert. It was. And it was wonderful.
A School of Prayer is organized chronologically, beginning with the “Introduction” about the history of prayer in ancient cultures across time, and the inner sense of humanly wonder. Benedict sums up the rationale for prayer in the second chapter, writing:
Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and truth which impel him towards the Absolute; man bears within himself the desire for God. And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God; he knows he can pray to him.
The remainder of the talks presented in the book are organized by significant theological timeframes and genres: in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, the prayers of Jesus, and of the Apostles. Each chapter presents the reader with biblical exegesis, explanatory asides, anecdotes from biblical figures, recommendations for practice, and ends with a prayer from Benedict to the reader.
In A School of Prayer, Benedict’s historical and biblical knowledge is on full display, but presented in such a way that is accessible to the layperson. (These are, after all, transcriptions from general audiences.) Full of quotes from the fathers of the Church, Benedict is able to paint the broad picture with concise strokes. The final section of the book is a veritable “bonus features” of Benedict’s talks. Given from the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, these talks cover a variety of topics from reading the bible in one’s spare time, to meditation, to the role of art in prayer.
For me, the highlight of the book (and highlight I did!) is the section that focuses on the various types of psalms. In fact, Benedict refers to the psalms themselves as “a school of prayer” from which we both pray and learn to pray. He presents a compelling comparison of learning to pray from the psalms and a child’s acquisition of language in a natural setting. We are reminded that Jesus himself prayed with the psalms. Shockingly, to me, we learn that in the original Hebrew, Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm. Who knew?!
Having read A School of Prayer, I feel enriched. I have a better understanding of prayer, and a better understanding of Benedict. I look forward to rereading this book whenever my prayer life dries up, or when I need the extra inspiration to pray along with the saints. It is without hesitation that I recommend A School of Prayer to anyone interested in enriching his or her prayer life. In particular, I recommend spending some time in prayer with the psalms. I can’t help but imagine that in his retirement, at the renovated monastery in the Vatican gardens, Benedict is doing just that, too.