ELLEN L JOYCE, Fordham University


The purpose of this dissertation is to analyze the evaluate the specific contributions of John Chapman to the theory and practice of prayer. Chapman's Spiritual Letters and numerous articles on the spiritual life along with the comment and controversy generated by them provide the basic source for analysis. John Chapman was a noted Biblical and Patristic scholar who also attained a widespread reputation as a master of the spiritual life during his lifetime (1865-1933).^ The first chapter presents a sketch of Chapman's life, an introduction to his writing and an historical account of the general background and principal figures in the revival of mysticism in the early twentieth century. Chapman was born and raised an Anglican but converted to Catholicism as a young man. He entered the Benedictines at Maredsous Abbey in Belgium in 1892, affiliated with the Downside community in 1919, and was elected Abbot of Downside in 1929.^ Through textual analysis three key principles are identified that constitute the heart of Chapman's theory of prayer. "Willing only what God wills" is the first and most fundamental principle. In a broad sense it refers to the whole of the Christian life and how it may be approached. In a narrow sense it refers to a way into contemplative prayer. The second principle, "pray as you can," is the aphoristic summary of what "willing only what God wills" means when it is specifically applied to prayer. For Chapman, no one can choose her own prayer except within the narrowest limits because prayer is fundamentally a gift. The third principle is that the charity of one's life is the norm by which to judge the quality of prayer. Taken together, these three principles constitute a kind of "methodless" method for prayer which is simple without being naive, adaptable, convincing, and internally consistent.^ The goal toward which so much of John Chapman's effort was directed was the restoration of contemplative prayer to its rightful place in the Christian tradition, that is, as the ordinary prayer of Christians. It was unfortunate in his eyes that discursive meditation had usurped the place of contemplation since the time of the Quietists. Following John of the Cross, Chapman offers a lucid explanation of the Dark Night, the experience which marks the end of meditation and the beginning of contemplation. Chapman attributed the dominance of discursive meditation at least in part to the fact that so few people recognized the beginning of the Dark Night.^ Chapman's spirituality was deeply influenced by St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales and Jean Pierre de Caussade. The three great mystics were profound formative influences in Chapman. He became acquainted with de Caussade somewhat later in life but found in de Caussade's idea of abandonment the realization of all that he had been articulating for years in what was the keystone of his thought: to will only what God wills.^ The concluding chapter deals with some of the problems raised by Chapman's theory and evaluates his contribution to the theory and practice of prayer. Some of the problems treated center on Chapman's attribution of mysticism to the survival of a reternatural faculty; whether he is guilty of Quietism; and the relationship of Christian and non-Christian mysticism. Chapman's contribution is solid and original in creating accessibility to the classical mystics through the simplicity of his language, in insisting on the primacy of charity even in prayer, and in emphasizing the positive, receptive character of abandonment. ^

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Recommended Citation

JOYCE, ELLEN L, "PRAY AS YOU CAN: THE THEORY OF PRAYER OF JOHN CHAPMAN" (1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8123548.