Because books on prayer are ubiquitous (an internet search returns 69,700 titles) one approaches them with skepticism, expecting to be assailed with more of the same-sincere and inspirational at best, trite and romantic at worst. This one is different. Matthew the Poor (Fr. Matta El-Meskeen), an Egyptian monastic called ''that rebellious monk'' for suggesting that inspiration and prayer should guide Church affairs, whose books are banned in Egypt, possesses what the singular pursuit of prayer alone confers: authenticity. The unmistakable voice of the Fathers lives in this contemporary ascetic. ''Prayer that is genuine and spiritual is both a [divine] call and a [human] response,'' he begins, and its efficacy hinges on the realization of one fact alone: the awareness that the soul ''is created in God's image.'' From that simple premise, the book opens into over 20 sections on various aspects of prayer-its ecstasy to its aridity, its foods to its fruits-with Fr. Matta's words introducing and commenting upon saints of the early Church and the desert, whose maximalisms remain a daunting, and sometimes discouraging, example to those who live in the world. The triumph and beauty of this text rests in the beauty of Fr. Matta-his compassion and understanding are so manifest that without diluting the difficulty of the path, nor obscuring its nuanced stages, he points the way to those who desire, and are willing to sacrifice for, an existence formed by the practice of unceasing prayer. So successful is it, one cannot read long before setting it aside. Far from justifying good intentions in florid prose, this book is near indispensable for those few who wish them squarely challenged. Like the tradition that has shaped him, Fr. Matta presents prayer to us ''not as a concept or as intellectual knowledge, but as experience and life.''
An Eighth Day View:
This volume evolved experientially: the fruit of fifty-five years of solitude by a contemporary Coptic Orthodox desert monk besieged by prayer. Fr Matta's prayer life initially was formed under the direction of the sayings of the Russian Fathers, and later expanded under the direction of other Fathers, both Eastern and Western. He imparts to his readers "a whole course" on prayer.