The Letters of John Chapman

In The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman he offers excellent spiritual direction to a large number of correspondents. The letters included in this collection begin in June 1914 continuing up until ill-health in the early 1930s; he died in November 1933 at the age of 68.

The letters in the first part of the book are to lay people and he offers practical and insightful advice. Writing from the Abbey on the Isle of Caldey near Tenby he encourages the development of contemplative prayer.

Letters to the first correspondent are from 1914 up till 1931. He begins by suggesting that the interior peace that is wanted is not attainable; however there is another interior peace which consists of simply willing what God wills – even though it seems to go against one’s own desires.

Chapman thinks that prayer is about annihilating one’s own will in a cheerful and willing fashion, though this would undoubtedly put him at odds with psychotherapists who might wonder whether that can indeed ever really happen.

Chapman discourages the person against seeking a vocation and looking for a community to join thinking that they would be disappointed and suggesting instead a time of waiting and wondering and trusting to where God leads. He reassuringly adds that ‘all will come right, so it may seem all wrong. Do not worry, but be confident. If you cannot pray in the least, and only waste time, and moon, and wander, still hold on…’ He ends this letter by saying that although these are his views and he certainly not infallible he finds them reasonable and they work well in practice.

A couple of years later in 1916 he is repeating his suggestion of just remaining with God in times of quiet prayer and that the more time that can reasonably be given to being alone with God easier it is to enjoy it. Here he spells out that enjoyment is a feeling that it’s worth doing rather than judging it is simply lazy and wasting time.

The test he says ‘is not whether you feel anything at the time, but whether afterwards you feel (quite illogically) better, and more determined to serve God. In the subsequent letters he advocates the answer to all troubling states of mind is to abandon – in other words only God matters. ‘It is not necessary to “want God and want nothing else.” You have only to “want to want God, and want to want nothing else.”’ He reassuringly adds that very few people get beyond this but that God is interested in the wish and the will in this way we are all beginners.