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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Poetic columns, the mystery of prayer

By Demetria Martinez
University of Oklahoma Press, 173 pages, $14.95

In her latest book, Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana, Demetria Martinez -- NCR columnist, author of two poetry collections and a novel, Mother Tongue -- collects essays and columns that she published earlier in a variety of venues, including NCR, World Literature Today, Arizona Republic and Sojourners Magazine. Confessions is Volume 4 in the Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Américas series from the University of Oklahoma Press.

The title essay taps into the efforts to learn to speak fluent Spanish among many Americans of Mexican origin who grew up speaking English. Ms. Martinez discusses her feelings of guilt at her language limitations: “Once I participated in a panel at the Smithsonian with Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada and Claribel Alegría of El Salvador. A woman in the audience stood up and accused: How dare we speak as Latinos about Latino literature -- in English?”

Other essays in this collection reflect Ms. Martinez’s constant exploration of her own identity, detailing her dedication to writing, her struggles with her Catholic faith, her activism on behalf of the poor and immigrants and her love for New Mexico (she lives in Albuquerque). In “Pointers,” she gives advice on writing a novel -- a project she accomplished in nine months while living in Kansas City and working full-time in the NCR offices. There is also a generous sampling of Ms. Martinez’s poetry throughout these pages.

The essay “Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana” appears in Spanish at the end of the book in a translation by Héctor Contreras López. Ms. Martinez offers it “to my hermanos and hermanas on the other side, el otro lado.”

By Thomas Keating
Lantern Books, 139 pages, $14

When he was abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., from 1961-81, Cistercian Fr. Thomas Keating saw young people who had studied with spiritual masters from other traditions visit his monastery now and then to check out what the monks had to offer in the way of contemplative prayer. “It was as if these students were saying to us: ‘Here is the method we learned in this particular Eastern spiritual tradition. Where is yours?’ ”

Fr. Keating and his monks knew that the Christian tradition had a rich heritage of contemplative prayer; it was there in the writings of the fourth-century desert monks, the medieval mystics and of course in the Gospel. He decided it was time to reintroduce that tradition to modern Christians. Thus was born Centering Prayer, which Fr. Keating developed in the 1970s to help people learn how to retreat into what Jesus called “prayer in secret.”

Fr. Keating, who now lives at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colo., begins Manifesting God, his new book about contemplative prayer, by emphasizing that prayer is a relationship -- and it can be difficult to figure out how to have a relationship with the infinite God. “As Thomas Aquinas taught,” writes Fr. Keating, “whatever we say about God is more unlike God than saying nothing. If we do say something, it can only be a pointer toward the Mystery that can never be explained.”

He goes on to discuss the book of Job and many of the parables of Jesus to explain what they say about our way of relating with the Divine. Finally, he gives a short history and outline of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer offers certain guidelines -- such as setting a minimum of 20 minutes for prayer, or choosing a “sacred word” to repeat -- but as Fr. Keating writes, it “is not a technique but a way of cultivating God’s friendship.”

-- Antonia Ryan

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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