Mary Margaret Funk is executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and the author of Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life. There she dealt with John Cassian's delineation of the eight "classic" thoughts that take us away from the presence of God. In this ambitious and well-realized spiritual workbook written for "contemplatives in the world," the author presents more than two dozen practices including ones developed by the early desert mothers and fathers and ones espoused by later practitioners of the Way of Jesus Christ.
Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life is perfect for those who are looking for concrete actions, prayers, and devotional rituals that can be utilized in the midst of everyday life. Early on Funk observes: "In practice, the way to purity of heart, and hence to having a full-flavored garden, is to remove the human 'weeds' by reducing, redirecting, and removing our thoughts. Then God's presence 'springs up.' . . . So, right effort is to weed, not plant. God's work is prayer and our work is 'un-thinking.' " She then goes on to explain various techniques used by the desert fathers and mothers to train their minds in regard to afflictions of the body (food, sex, and things), afflictions of the mind (anger, dejection), and afflictions of the soul (acedia, vainglory, and pride).
Since there are toxic people, places, and things in the world that pull us away from God's presence, Funk prescribes the ancient practice of guarding the heart, which involves the preventive medicine of not allowing poisonous energies to pollute our inner being or souls. Other tools that help contribute to this effort are watchfulness of thoughts, fasting, dreams, and repentance.
Positive tools that deepen the spiritual life are ceaseless prayer, manual labor, the call, vigils, and manifestation of thoughts. Funk hits high stride in her assessment of the following Christian practices: the Jesus prayer, the practice of emptiness, the Little Way of St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the practice of self-abasement of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the practice of the presence of God by Brother Lawrence, the practice of colloquy of Gabrielle Bossis, and the practice of recollection by St. Teresa of Avila.
Funk suggests that these practices are best appropriated under the guidance of a spiritual director or in the company of some kind of intentional Christian community. As she notes in the final chapter on discernment, "Probably the greatest problem when selecting, using, or discarding a tool is to think we have anything to do with the value of a tool. Tools are means of grace. Grace is given to us freely, as is the impulse toward using a particular tool. We receive it and use it humbly in a spirit of detachment. We hold our hands empty, our hearts warmed, and our minds ready for clarity. God does the rest."