In Writing – A Way to Pray, Arnold Cheyney presents writing as an essential skill for deepening the life of prayer. After briefly explaining his theoretical foundations, Cheyney devotes the rest of the book – nearly 75% – to helping the reader put his ideas into practice. The strength of his book lies in Cheyney’s pragmatic focus and strong Scriptural basis. However, he balances the entire book on a single educational theory known as “writing for learning.” Further, there is an overemphasis on human language that ignores the mysterious and unspeakable nature of God. Overall, this book is a helpful tool for the formation of an enriched spirituality in the lives of Christians – for beginning writers and expert novelists alike.
Cheyney begins by placing his work in the Ignatian prayer tradition, which focuses on the use of images to experience God. “Writing,” he says, “by definition and exercise, is imaging.” He outlines his basic assumptions on thinking, writing, time, motivation, and benefits to prayer throughout the first chapter. Most importantly, he introduces a main component of his thesis: “Writing promotes learning.” The theme of his work is described as learning to allow the thoughts of God, found primarily in His Word, to transform the minds of believers.
The idea of learning through writing is expanded in the second chapter. Cheyney shares how writing forces the reader to think with language and not only about language. He connects this idea with Scripture by saying that writing enables the reader to think with Scripture and not only about Scripture. He continues by presenting several positive consequences of writing for the reader’s mind. It helps the mind keep its focus, shape meaning, stimulate flexibility, and engage complex thoughts. Essentially, it enables the reader to learn by creating an environment where the reader can experience the meaning and purpose of Scripture instead of simply thinking about it.
The third and fourth chapters are comprised of several methods for practicing the art of prayer-writing. While the third chapter focuses on shorter, less time-consuming methods, the fourth chapter challenges readers to invest more time in fully exercising their imaginations. An example found in chapter three would be answering the questions posed by Jesus throughout the Gospels. In chapter four, Cheyney suggests script writing or poetry based on a Psalm. He offers a wide array of methods that will appeal to writers of all varieties. The book ends with several application sections where Cheyney provides resources for getting started with most all of the methods he described in the third and fourth chapters.
Throughout his book, Cheyney is encouraging readers to use writing to develop their mind and come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word. This idea finds overwhelming support in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus includes loving God with a whole mind in the greatest commandment. The Apostle Paul is nearly obsessed with this idea and includes it in several of his letters. To the church in Rome he writes, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” At the end of his famous exposition of love, he tells the church at Corinth in his first letter to grow up and let go of their childish ways of thinking. In his second letter to Corinth, Paul commands the church to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” To Philippi he writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Peter also takes up Cheyney’s cause in his first letter when he encourages the believers to prepare their minds for action. Finally, James expresses his desire to see the Church develop their minds in order to avoid the folly of double-mindedness. Clearly, Cheyney’s argument for exercising the mind is supported in Scripture. For the reader who respects the authority of Scripture, it is impossible to discount the necessity of a sharp mind in following Christ. Since writing is an exercise in thinking, it is an essential skill for Christians to master as they seek to love God with all their minds.
Cheyney does not leave readers guessing about what this practice will look like in their everyday lives. He uses nearly three-quarters of the book to explain a wide array of prayer writing techniques. By providing his own prayer writing schedule, he gives the reader an even more concrete image of prayer-writing in action. If this were not enough, Cheyney ends the book with a workbook-like section containing resources for implementing many of the prayer-writing methods and techniques he has just described. These resources allow the reader to begin prayer-writing immediately. Upon finishing this book, readers will be fully equipped to incorporate writing into their prayer lives. This pragmatic focus is the book’s most compelling feature.
If the reader does not accept the idea of writing as a way to learn, this book will be a waste of time. Cheyney builds his entire argument on this single theory. He relies heavily on the work of William Zinsser whom he quotes as saying, “Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly about any subject at all.” If this idea is disregarded, the book simply becomes an interesting guide for practicing grammar.
The reader may also find Cheyney’s exalted role for human language in prayer to be problematic. His statement that “prayer is dependent on language,” seems to ignore the mysterious and unspeakable nature of both prayer and God. The Apostle Paul describes the intercession of the Holy Spirit as groans that cannot be expressed in words. Paul goes on to tell the church at Corinth that the mind cannot even conceive of the things God has planned for those who love Him. While God is certainly knowable, as He chooses to reveal Himself, human language will always fall short of describing Him. Cheyney does not seem to be aware of this limitation.
In conclusion, Cheyney has compiled a very useful tool that equips the Christian to fulfill an essential part of the greatest commandment – loving God with the whole mind. The reader is given more than enough examples to begin prayer-writing immediately. Since the idea that writing does in fact lead to learning is widely accepted, readers have no reason to fear their time is being wasted. As they write, they will inevitably learn; as they write about Scripture, they will learn how to think with Scripture. As the knowledge of Scripture moves from the head to the heart, the reader will be empowered to love God and neighbor with a fresh passion and creativity.