An outstanding new guide to the spiritual life
Becoming Fire by Fr Ken Barker mgl (Freedom Publishing, 2001, 220pp, RRP $22.00 ISBN 0957868200. Available from AD Books (03) 9326 5757)
Most people, I suspect, would prefer to read a history of the Ming Dynasty in China than a book on Christian spirituality. The reasons for this stem partly from the difficulty in going beyond vague and general principles - live a moral life, model yourself on Christ, develop the practice of regular prayer - to the point where it provides real and practical assistance in reorganising one's life to give due weight to its spiritual component.
Becoming Fire is particularly valuable in that it provides sound advice - based on the practical experience of Fr Ken Barker as a priest, spiritual director and founder of the Missionaries of God's Love - on how to organise one's life towards the things which finally matter.
Becoming Fire takes as its theme Jesus' statement, recorded by St Luke, "I have come to bring fire to the earth". This fire, he shows, is the love of God for us, and conversely, our potential to reciprocate that love for God, through prayer and good works, to transform not only our own lives, but those with whom we come in contact, and ultimately, human society.
The approach taken to this theme is to offer a deeply Biblical approach to the spiritual life, in the Catholic tradition.
The first Chapter, "The fire of God's love", examines how Pentecost transformed the early Christians from a frightened, timid group who hid away from the people of Jerusalem, into fearless and outspoken leaders who were consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Barker says that this is not simply a characteristic of the apostolic era, but must apply to us as well. "Growth in the spiritual life," he says, "is letting this fire of God's love penetrate us, change us and empower us."
Drawing from the writings of some of the great saints, he shows how they were transformed, and in turn, transformed the lives of many others. To these he adds contemporary stories of how people's lives were transformed by great acts of love.
He examines the significance of the Crucifixion, not as we usually think of it, as Jesus suffering for our sins, but rather as proof of Jesus' unbounded love of each of us.
Chapter II, titled "Being purified by God's fire", answers the question of how we can purify ourselves from bad habits and sin. He discusses, in a practical way, how sin damages us by breaking that intimate link we have with God, and how we can purify ourselves through the sacraments, and particularly confession.
Once again, his writing reflects a deep understanding of the nature of contemporary life. He writes, "Some people think that the answer to life is 'doing what comes naturally'. More than often this means following one's flesh inclination. We are fallen human beings, and even though we are immersed in the redeeming mystery of Jesus in baptism, we retain this woundedness in our human condition, which means we are in a constant battle with the flesh", that powerful drive within us towards sin.
Chapter III discusses how we develop positively, through the virtues, in the grace and love of God, particularly through love, obedience and humility. Chapter IV, "Yielding to the fire of God's love", discusses certain critical graces which we need to be united to God, particularly, desire and determination; detachment and surrender; and trust in the providence of God. It is only in this way that the mystery of suffering - perhaps the greatest obstacle to belief in an all-powerful and benevolent God - makes any sense at all.
The next Chapter, "Stoking the Fire", contains a wealth of practical advice on building the spiritual life. Fr. Barker points out that "in the increasing pressures of modern living, organisation of time becomes very important for the spiritual life ... A plan of life sets out the regular weekly schedule so that the most important priorities are included first. When we examine a typical week, it is possible that television gains greater priority than prayer, that the gym is more important than family, that the football ranks higher than spiritual reading, and that work squeezes out everything else."
Chapters VI and VII discuss ways of praying, including contemplative prayer, vocal prayer and meditation, each of which has its proper place in the development of a truly Christian spirit. He discusses how to use the Scriptures and the writings of saints and other models of the spiritual life, while the final chapter, "Guarding the fire", shows us how to develop a discerning heart, based on a personal loving relationship with Jesus.
His conclusion is a challenge to us to live the full Christian life in a world which more desperately needs it than ever before. He is optimistic that the "new springtime" prophesied by John Paul II will be achieved through the actions of Christians who respond to the gift of God's love, to "become fire", and transform a world which - despite its material riches - is spiritually barren.
This book will be read with great profit by all who seek to know more about the spiritual life. In clear and simple language, Fr Barker shows how each of us can nurture the Christian life within, transforming our own lives, and the lives of others.
Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council and the Publisher of 'AD2000.'