Editor’s note: Today we celebrate fathers, including Seattle author Mark Shea, the Catholic father of four sons (and grandfather to one adorable girl). This is the second of a three-part conversation between Mark and CatholicMatch. Read the first installation, when Mark introduces his new book and explains the role of prayer, here. And check back next Sunday for the third installation, in which Mark offers advice on writing and finding a spouse.
In researching your book “The Heart of Catholic Prayer,” what were the core resources you kept at hand or on your desk?
The Bible, the Catechism. I also made use of a fine little book called “Prayer in Practice” by Father Simon Tugwell. He’s a Dominican. He starts his book off with a wonderful quote basically saying the main thing you need to keep in mind about prayer, according to St. Paul, is that you do not know how to do it, which I found very liberating, having thought: “Well, everybody else seems to know what they’re doing and I don’t.” So St. Paul is saying, “Oh, I’m a normal person. That’s good to know!”
I think that’s good for a lot of people.
I was surprised how much ground you could cover with these two prayers – theology, Church history, apologetics, with a sprinkling of Catechism excerpts and smattering of saint quotes, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a great summary of Catholicism.
I had a feeling this would require a lot of unpacking. The four pillars of the Catechism are based on things which are deceptively simple. You can say the creed in one minute. The sacraments of the Church seem to be very simple things – here, I’ll splash some water on you and say a few words, here’s some body and wine. We don’t celebrate Eucharist with caviar and champagne. It’s just bread and wine. You anoint people with plain old olive oil, not something fancy.
And the Lord’s Prayer is deceptively simple. But it’s simple in the way that the nucleus of a cell is simple. A biologist says if you unspool the DNA in a single human cell it would stretch 30 miles.
That’s kind of the way the Lord’s Prayer is: It’s the DNA of the Church’s entire prayer life. All of Christian prayer ultimately springs from the Lord’s Prayer and is related to it in some way or another. Every prayer you see in scripture somehow or another is relatable back to the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s reflected in the Hail Mary. The Lord’s Prayer was composed for disciples, and the Hail Mary was composed by disciples.
That’s what you’re looking at when you’re looking at the Hail Mary. There’s one thing God could never do for us: He could never show us what a disciple of Christ looks like. That’s what Mary does.
In the Hail Mary, you’re looking at Mary, you’re contemplating Mary as the greatest disciple. That’s why the Hail Mary naturally goes into the rosary, because the rosary walks you through the life of Jesus as seen through his greatest disciple.
You know, I can’t remember.
You blocked it out?
Several months. I wrote it as a series over several months. So I would say, all told, from composition to final polish, probably six months worth of word.
I love your observation about the marketing potential of particular Catholic prayers that pop into vogue, like “The Serenity Prayer” – which sprouts up in many secular manifestations, rarely attributed to St. Francis de Sales. Why is the Church so bad at marketing? And why is that a relief in your mind?
It was never build by Jesus to be good at marketing. You can’t put in what God left out. The Church has always been terrible at stuff like that. That’s a feature, not a bug.
We’re surrounded by slick marketing, and all the Church has to offer is the same thing it’s always had to offer: Jesus and the tradition. And when it sticks to those things then it’s doing its job. And when it tries to get cute…
The Church itself doesn’t do that, but of course you’ll always find Catholics who try to get cute. …You may find some clever suburban American parish where someone decides it would be clever to put an Espresso machine in the vestibule. I don’t think it’s utterly impossible for the Church to embrace slick marketing, but it’s not the instinct of the Church.
So the Church says, “Here, Our Father, Hail Mary, stick with those, those are the tried and true, time tested, that’s at the core.”
That’s why I wanted to write the book, because those core prayers are inexhaustible. You never run out of something to hear in them if you listen. The trick is really listening, because for some reason it’s very difficult for fallen humans to continue listening to something they’ve heard many times and to continue to probe it. It becomes meaningless for them if they’re not paying attention. So what my book is trying to do is to get people to pay attention to these prayers again and hear how much is going on in them.
You manage to convey a lot of personality and fun into a book so dense in nature. Your language, your tone, your outlook. How has G.K. Chesteron, the king of wit – who I see gets a shout-out in your acknowledgments – taught you to write with levity, even on serious topics?
Well, Chesteron’s hallmark was that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. We’re living in a time in which people take themselves extremely seriously and treat matters of faith very lightly. I think it’s important to do the exact opposite. I treat the tradition with great seriousness. It’s only we human beings that we take lightly. We’re funny creatures, and so I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that.
Chesterton is able to take people lightly but not hold them in contempt. Something I admire about him is he has great reverence for people, especially for ordinary people. He doesn’t have great reverence for elites.
My basic rule of thumb with writing is if I’m not having fun my reader won’t be having fun either. Partly I write to amuse myself. If something amuses me, then I will put it in, provided it’s appropriately amusing. You don’t want the gag just for the gag.