Prayer expert's encounter with darkness

Ruth Burrows, Love Unknown, Continuum

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A Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows devotes an hour each morning and an hour each afternoon to mental prayer. For her, God is utterly other. He is not to be seen and our mind has no concepts that can capture him.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who commissioned this book, puts it in his introduction: “When we are empty of our fantasies about goodness or holiness or integration or however we phrase it, we can just allow God to be who he is - ‘love unknown', the one who wants to live in us and pray in us, so that we - silenced and humbled by his generosity - can come to life again, without anxiety.”

She has been trying to pray as a nun for 65 years. And what has she to show for it? Darkness, by her own account, and the feeling that God does not exist. As a young woman, when she prayed, nothing “happened”, and she soon realised it would always be like this. It is impossible to understand my life unless it.

The depression she suffered did not stem from any "Dark Night of the Soul". It came not from her vocation as a nun, but happened to be something that she brought to it with her, as part of her disposition. 

Those who have met her find her a sharp, intelligent, amusing interlocutor, but things are no easier for her in her spiritual life today. The difference is that now she is "happy to be poor". This attitude of poverty is the underlying, human theme of Love Unknown.

The two themes go together: the objective reality of a loving God, and on the other side a radical human poverty on the part of the Christian loved by him.

Nearly 40 years ago, a book by Ruth Burrows called Guidelines for Mystical Prayer changed Rowan Williams' life. He was astonished by its "honesty and realism". Its title now sounds a little technical.

Love Unknown is intended as an easily approachable Lent book, for parish study groups to use week by week. It is no bad thing, though, that it has come out in time for Christmas.


Review: Love Unknown (The Tablet)


Articles by Ruth Burrows (The Pastoral Review)

Tortured complexity (Ron Rolheiser)


Click here for a 20% discount on this and other books from Church Resources and John Garrett Publishing

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