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Profound Devotion: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Treasury of Classic Devotionals on the Christian Life, by Leland Ryken, editor. Wheaton: Crossway, 2022, 188 pages, $34.99.

Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church, by Robert Elmer, editor. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2022, 346 pages, $24.99.

Christian publishers seem to have discovered a market for devotional anthologies. No doubt in the midst of the frenetic environment of modernity, serious Christians hunger for the change of spiritual and mental pace that only heaven can bring. Here are two wisely constructed devotional anthologies that will help modulate the Christian walk and act as an antidote to the constant and pervasive electronic demand for our attention—usually to the trivial.

Robert Elmer is a former Baptist pastor, reporter, and ad copywriter, who has written over fifty inspirational books of historical fiction and science fiction for adults and young people. He lives in Idaho.

His latest devotional is Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church. He also anthologized Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans (2020), which I reviewed in January 2020. His devotional focus is the life of prayer. He also has a version of Piercing Heaven formatted for journaling and meditation.

His choice of authors for Fount of Heaven covers the first six centuries of the church’s history. The earliest of the thirty-four authors are Clement of Rome (35–101 AD) and the Didache (first century). The latest is Venantius (530–609). Some authors are familiar like Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Eusebius, and Tertullian; but almost half are new to me. Elmer concludes the book with almost thirty pages of “Biographies and Sources” and an author index. Not all the authors are Christian leaders. Decimus Magnus Ausonius (310–95) “offers us an inside look at the last days of the Roman Empire, as well as a feel for his approach to living and working as a professing lay Christian in a secular society” (319). Under the rubric “Send Us Peace, Grace, and Healing,” Ausonius prays, “You are our hope O God, and you provide our endless home! Amen” (155).

The prayers are logically arranged under thirty-four headings with anywhere from three to eighteen prayers in each, beginning with “Help Us to Praise” and concluding with “Prayers for Days of the Christian Year,” five of which are Christmas and three for Palm Sunday and Easter. The topics are wide-ranging, covering creation, the Trinity, the attributes of God, faith, repentance, grace and forgiveness, worship and the sabbath, the church and its unity, and much more.

As Elmer points out many sacrificed wealth and status to become Christians, and many gave their lives during times of persecution, prior to Constantine. Their prayers are uniformly God-centered. “[P]ersonal issues seemed to take a back seat to the all-consuming glory of their three-in-one God. . . . They seemed to have little time for self-centered drama” (2). These Christians put a premium on the truth, biblical doctrine and theology, as the ultimate reality connecting them with the living and true God.

Elmer’s ardent hope is that we will imitate the intelligent ardor of these ancient believers. “They wrote about their faith with effusive, mystery-filled joy that is rare today” (2). It is not an accident that Elmer accents the God-centered nature of these prayers by beginning with praise—focusing on the wonders of God’s nature and grace. The first and last prayers of this opening section are by Augustine of Hippo, with one by Clement of Rome in the middle, believed to be the earliest recorded Christian prayer outside of the Bible.

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Leland Ryken has done it again with The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Treasury of Classic Devotionals on the Christian Life. His anthology of classic devotional poetry, The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (2018) was reviewed by me in January 2019. This present volume is meant to be a companion to The Soul in Paraphrase. Both are devotional, but each is a different medium, the former poetry and the latter prose. He is a master anthologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of devotional poetry and literature. In this volume Ryken gathers fifty classic devotionals. Each devotional is accompanied by a brief biographical sketch of the author, concluding with an explanatory note, and a related Scripture verse. Ryken is ever the professor of English literature.

The only author unfamiliar to me is Lilias Trotter (1853–1928), a missionary who wrote two well-known devotional books interspersed with drawings of plants: Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-Life (144). The authors are as diverse as nurse Florence Nightingale, literary critic Samuel Johnson, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, playwright William Shakespeare, and Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. From the ancient church to the twentieth century, the book is strewn with poets, Puritans, and preachers. Five of the devotionals come from creeds and one from the preface to the Geneva Bible. The range of writers is extraordinary. Forty-six authors over a span of seventeen centuries from a wide range of denominations and traditions make for a fascinating variety of devotional material.

Ryken’s choices were very intentional. In his “Editor’s Introduction” he defines devotional literature as first taking personal religious and spiritual experience as its subject and second aiming to affect godliness in daily life. Meeting these criteria, they become classics due to superior technique and beauty of form. “The verbal beauty and rhetorical skill are part of the total effect of a passage” (15). There must also be an element of surprise in the work to make it rise above the expected, Ryken insists—not in doctrine but in the way the truth is expressed. This is a superb volume in every aspect. I highly recommend it.

Both Crossway and Lexham have produced books whose physical properties suit the profundity of the subject matter. This craftsmanship, along with the prayers themselves, invites the reader away from screen reading, demanding our undivided attention. They each have subtly colored buckram hardcovers with gilt lettering on the spines and front covers, a ribbon bookmark, and bound in signature to last through many years of reading. Crossway has a slight edge in terms of paper and print quality, cover design, and typography.

The combination of arresting devotions and heaven-storming prayers in these volumes should enrich the reader’s Christian experience.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2022.

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Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

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