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New prayer guide lives up to the ‘essential’ in its title

April 1, 2011


To title a book “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” takes either courage or hubris. This new Alpha paperback by Mary DeTurris Poust lives up to its name.

Just over 300 pages and just $16.95, it could be a textbook for those on the journey to enter the Catholic Church, but even cradle Catholics will find it valuable when looking for a spiritual refresher course or a source of comfort in time of need.

What I liked best about this prayer guide was that it wasn’t dogmatic. It was authoritative without being authoritarian, often a lost trait in Catholic life in the 21st Century. Poust is clear:

“Pick 10 Catholics out of a group and ask them about their prayer lives, and you’re likely to get 10 very different answers. The bottom line is that there is no single prayer path to God. As long as you’re constantly striving to make a connection through some form of prayer, you’ll keep moving forward.”

Poust makes the great point that prayer didn’t start with Christianity or even Judaism. For as long as humans have walked the earth there’s been a drive to connect with something greater than us, she writes: “We’re hardwired for it.”

No rant, no slant

She solidly explains why Catholic prayer is different, and goes on to take a closer look at basic Catholic prayers and prayer life. None of it is ideologically slanted; it’s not liberal, it’s not conservative, it’s just Catholic.  And it’s extremely education oriented. Throughout there are pull-outs labeled “Definition,” “Prayer practice,” “Wisdom for the Journey,” and “Misc.” that add knowledge, flavor, and practical ideas to try, plus quotes from the famous and note-so-famous that bring a topic to life and make it real for anyone who sits in a church pew.

Each chapter concludes with “Essential Takeaways,” bullet points that reinforce the teaching of those last few pages.

Basic devotions to Mary, the Litany of the Saints, “Help form Holy Men and Women” like the prayers of St. Bernadette and St. Anthony of Padua will end up being “bookmarked” to return to when certain needs arise.

Mass gets treatment it deserves

Six full chapters explain the greatest Catholic prayer, the Mass. This portion of “The Essential Guide” is so well done, taking readers from the historical perspective through the gestures and postures, explaining the three basic parts of the Mass and the prayers in each, and helping readers understand the “why” behind the words and actions of the Eucharistic Liturgy.

This is an up-to-date primer on the Mass that explains what the coming changes to the liturgy will entail and why the church is making the changes.

It takes a welcome open-minded attitude toward modern technology, seeing the Internet and digital media as an asset that isn’t a threat but rather enhances prayer, connecting people in ways never before possible while still encouraging the closer relationships that face-to-face encounters provide.

Poust sees prayer possibilities everywhere, and she throws out for readers some things to try, including seeing household chores and eating as prayer, something I’d never have considered. Praying while walking is another suggestion. Rational, open-minded readers will appreciate her balanced explanation of the ancient tradition of walking a circular labyrinth in prayer:

“Some traditional Catholics are wary of the labyrinth, saying it’s a pagan tradition, while others emphasize its usefulness in teaching pray-ers to slow down and focus their thoughts not on achieving a spiritual goal, but on the journey itself.”

Finally, there’s a helpful glossary and an appendix that lists additional resources, plus an index. I could only see one weakness: the photography. The author’s columns, blogs and books are a testament that she’s an accomplished writer, but the photos here are, for the most part, simply the snapshots of a tourist. A book this good deserves professional photography.

But that’s such a minor issue. This maybe one of those books you find you keep close by, refer to constantly, and swear by because it has become so, well, essential. — bz

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