When I received this book to review, my reaction was, “Terrific. If Gerald O’Collins wrote it, it will be a delight to read.” It is a slim book and I expected to read it in a few hours. Had I paid attention to the subtitle, I might have been less cavalier in my allotment of reading time.
Simply put: I could not read this book. Each time I tried, I found myself praying. While this might be a fine endorsement of O’Collins’s theological and pastoral gifts, it poses something of a challenge for a reviewer. Finally, I surrendered. I would first use the book for prayer and then reread it for the purpose of writing the review.
The author’s intention is to inspire readers to become habitual pray-ers, despite the pressures of their professional and personal obligations. O’Collins is convinced that frequent “pauses for thought” will allow God to clarify our hearts’ desires and deepen our spiritual lives. This book aims to make us share his conviction. The author’s credentials are impressive. He is currently teaching at Australian Catholic University after 33 years at the Gregorian University in Rome. His prolific writings and lectures on spirituality undergird an international reputation that resulted in his being made a Companion of the General Division of the Order of Australia, the highest civil honor granted by the Australian government.
The book has five parts of unequal length: Prayer, The Coming and Mission of Jesus, The Suffering and Death of Jesus, The Resurrection of Jesus and his Risen Life and Our God. Within each of these parts, there are chapters of varying lengths.
The chapters consist of reflections—each complete in itself while also contributing to the whole. The part on prayer is both beguiling and deceptive. In one chapter, O’Collins speaks of six images of prayer: letting ourselves go into deep silence, prayer as looking, as talking to God and ourselves, as depth experience, as putting our heads into our hearts and as being delivered from false images.
Another chapter uses Gospel passages to suggest that prayer might occasion God’s questioning us: “What are you looking for?” “Will you also go away?” “Do you love me?” Nor does the author shy away from accusations that time spent in prayer would be better spent in pursuing social justice or that set prayer times destroy spontaneity.
Lest we remain in the realm of theory, the final two chapters of this section on prayer offer several texts—two from the New Testament and two poems—that might lure us into prayer. Throughout the book, the simple language is comforting, enticing, full of familiar situations and common experiences. It is only on closer reading that we see that O’Collins also warns us of the hard work that all serious praying involves. He asserts firmly that prayer requires a fixed time and place, a method and a commitment that will not waver when emotions fade.
The remaining four parts of Pause for Thought contain about three dozen reflections. Some are whimsical (“In Praise of Christmas Cards” or “Kissed Into Life” or “Crazy About Jesus”), but all are likely either to prod gently or simply startle the reader into new ways of responding to God’s love. In “The Passion of Jesus According to Matthew and Luke,” for example, O’Collins lays out Matthew’s catalogue of those who deny responsibility for their roles in Jesus’ death: Judas, who scatters the money in the sanctuary of the Temple; the priests, who refuse to put the coins in the treasury; and Pilate, who publicly washes his hands of blame. Slowly we come to see that we too bear responsibility for Christ’s passion.
While this is certainly a salutary admission, O’Collins moves us on to Luke’s Gospel, filled with themes of forgiveness and healing: Jesus calls Judas by name at the moment of betrayal; Jesus heals the ear of the servant wounded by the disciple’s sword; Jesus gazes at Peter as Peter denies him. Luke includes these scenes, along with the restoration of the friendship between Pilate and Herod, the promise to the good thief, Jesus’ prayer to his Father to forgive all and the fact that Luke alone says that the male disciples witnessed “at a distance” the death of the Lord. In folding the accounts of both Evangelists into one reflection, O’Collins seems to be telling us that as we accept personal responsibility for our sinfulness, we must also steep ourselves in the love of Jesus, whose forgiveness and healing are unlimited.
The number of reflections that deserve attention is too great for this space. Some highlight individuals, like Bartimaeus, Veronica or Judas. Others put before us specific events: Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday or the Resurrection. The following snippet shows the freshness of the writing. Based on Jn 20: 19-31, the meditation is entitled “The Real Thomas.” Despite what we often hear in homilies about Doubting Thomas, O’Collins writes: “When Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, they are hiding away in fear behind locked doors (Jn 20:19). Where is Thomas? Seemingly he is out bravely showing his face around town. He is not afraid like the others, or at least does not let fear lock him up in hiding.” Thomas evidently had the courage to face trouble—perhaps even death. Yet he lacked the courage to believe in the Resurrection. How consoling for us in our struggle to believe! Thomas, O’Collins asserts, unifies John’s Gospel that begins with the Word-made-flesh and ends with Thomas exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.”
Love is the constant motif in this prayer-filled book. “The Body Language of Love” sums up what the author is teaching and what our faith confirms. Let’s give O’Collins the last word:
Shortly before he died his love manifested itself in the body language of the Eucharist. In that great sacrament he does not shrink from giving himself to us in a very bodily fashion. The body language of the Eucharist draws us together to Jesus and to one another, and transforms our relationship with him and with each other.”