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Keeping Company with God

This is a brief note to commend to you a book that I recently encountered for the first time: Prayer: Living with God by Simon Tugwell, O.P.

This summer, the book caught my attention — I use the phrase deliberately. It was almost as if the book was lying in wait for me, ready to catch me unawares, waiting for me like a fisherman’s lure. I was on a retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico (go there someday if you are able), and I was browsing the bookshelves in the guesthouse when I came across this book at random (but I don’t think there was anything random about it). It caught my eye, and I started reading — and I found myself hearing exactly what my soul most needed to hear at that moment.

This little experience of mine connects with a central theme of the book. “The life which Christ brings us,” Tugwell says, “the life of fellowship with God, does not consist in our drawing God into our world, but in his drawing us into his world.” Prayer is fundamentally about a relationship with God; it is (as Clement of Alexandria put it) “keeping company with God.” And Tugwell emphasizes that keeping company with the living God is not something that happens on our terms: “It is always God who calls men to keep company with him, never the other way about,” he says.

What Tugwell says about reading the Bible makes his point concrete. He commends the practice of reading Scripture with the imaginative liberty of free association. Here’s a taste of what he says:

Provided there is not too much deliberate control, we may find ourselves getting tremendously involved, not in scientific exegesis, but in a living relationship with the living Word. It may convict us, humble us, excite us, challenge us, move us to tears of joy or despair or contrition … the important thing is that it should get into us, get under our skin, and that it should engage us at a level deeper than that of our own deliberate choice.

After all, God’s word is addressed to us as we really are, not as we like to present ourselves; he speaks to our heart, not to our mask. It is not only that little bit of us which we have, as it were, colonized and made subject, that is involved in the Christian enterprise. It is the whole man.

[…] Then our Lord can really get hold of us, below the level of our deliberate control. He can get us hooked—he is, after all, a fisherman—so that, even though we may kick and scream and try to get away, he will at the end be able to land us safely at his feet.

As this quotation suggests, Tugwell is not focused on prayer in a narrow sense, but on the life of faith as a whole. Throughout, he draws on the riches of the Christian tradition to illuminate the various aspects of a life lived in company with God. He discusses a wide range of topics in ascetical theology, including, among others, the unselfconsciousness of true goodness (He asks: “Why should we ever want to be in a position where we can be sure of our own goodness?”) and the right use of anger (by way of a stimulating discussion of the psalm text, “Be angry and do not sin”).

For me, the most moving part of the book is Tugwell’s discussion of what he calls “the doctrine of the entire sufficiency of God.” In coming to us in the humility of the Incarnation, Tugwell says, Jesus is essentially “giving himself, giving his own life, giving his own spirit”:

That is the gift he has to give us. If we forget that, if we forget the poverty of God, then we shall keep demanding everything except the one thing that he has got to give us … Whatever our problem is, whatever the anxiety we bring to the Lord, he has got only one thing to say, only one answer: himself.

And again:

God has only the one thing to say, which is himself, he has only the one thing to give, which is himself. And he invites us to hear that Word, to treasure it in our hearts and find in it the source of all our bliss. He wants us, quite precisely, to enter into the joy of our Lord.

I hope these passages are enough to convince you of the power of this little book. I commend it to you for spiritual reading. For my part, I think this book will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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