Prayer is at once extremely personal and widely public. It can be an intimate exchange between a child and her Father, or a grand benediction spoken on behalf of thousands at a time. As the most basic form of communication with the Divine, it is essential to the health of our spiritual life, and most all of us could probably use a little improvement in this area. Prayer is also a principle where “holy envy” comes in handy. Both of the books in today’s column are written by authors of other faiths who provide valuable insights that cross denominational boundaries.
“The goal of authentic spirituality is to be in union with God.”
Mr. DeStefano has written a short, but encouraging book on prayer. As the title promises, he lists and discusses ten prayers he affirms that God will always answer:
* God, show me that You exist
* God, make me an instrument
* God, outdo me in generosity
* God, get me through this suffering
* God, forgive me
* God, give me peace
* God, give me courage
* God, give me wisdom
* God, bring good out of this bad situation
* God, lead me to my destiny
God desperately wants to communicate with us. “In fact, the history of the world is really the history of God trying to communicate with mankind…The fact is that we have a God who loves to communicate. And the reason is that communication is the starting point for any relationship.”
Of course, there are a few “catches.” First of all, what we pray for must be in accordance with God’s will. God, Mr. DeStefano explains, “is concerned about only one thing: our ultimate good, which boils down to whether or not we make it to heaven. Every request we make of God is ‘evaluated’ by him in light of that long-term goal.” We also have to pray in sincerity, having faith – trust – in God, to whatever extent we are capable at that time. “The goal here is to suspend your disbelief–if only temporarily–to give God a chance to enter your life.” And we have to recognize that our actions and attitude may affect our ability to receive answers. Mr. DeStefano explains this through an analogy: “Let’s say you took two glasses of water, one clean and clear, the other dark and cloudy, and dropped a shiny gold coin into each of them. Through which glass would it be easier to see the coin fall? Obviously, the glass with the clean water. Well, it’s the same with people. If God decides to reach down into your life and touch you in a special way in response to a prayer you’ve said, it’s going to be a little more difficult to see his hand if the life you’re leading is dark and cloudy, morally speaking…If you are living an immoral sort of existence now, it might take you a little longer to discern the hand of God in your life–but you will discern it.”
Mr. DeStefano gives a beautiful treatise on faith while discussing the first prayer – God, show me that You exist – that in many ways parallels Alma 32. “When you say this prayer, your faith will begin to grow–slowly at first, and then geometrically…The more steps you take toward God, the closer He will come to you…Your faith is going to get deeper and deeper the more time you are exposed to the light of God. It may take some time, but believe me, you are going to get to the point where you no longer have any doubts about his existence.”
I particularly loved his explanation of the second prayer – God, make me an instrument. This prayer, he says, “ties into the very essence of God’s being, which is love. If we pray for God to use us as an instrument to help someone else, we are really praying to be God-like.” He adds, “Saying this prayer is actually going to make you a much happier person than you are right now. Happiness is the thing God is going to give you in return for your selflessness.” And then I love this thought: “If God is going to use you as an instrument, he is going to begin fashioning and shaping you so that you can be the best possible instrument…The result is that your life is going to change for the better-you are going to change for the better. Whether you like it or not, you are going to start improving in all sorts of areas. In order to be a channel of God’s grace, you are going to necessarily have to grow in grace yourself.”
Mr. DeStefano writes from a Catholic perspective, but notes that he made the effort to make it as widely applicable to all Christian faiths as he could. Reading it from an LDS perspective, I was impressed at how applicable and familiar many of his points were. Mr. DeStefano’s beautiful insights have led me to ponder more deeply on the way I approach prayer.
“Revelation is not for the faint at heart.”
By Anne Lamott
Ms. Lamott has written an exquisite book – it tops out at 102 narrow but potent pages. With a focus on keeping prayer simple, she explains that when you boil a prayer down to its most basic message, there are really only three prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow.
Most of us are, I assume, fairly familiar with the first two: Help and Thanks. We probably say some variation of those prayers every day in our personal prayers, family prayers, and congregational prayers. After all, our kids learn the formula in both lessons and songs in Primary. Open by addressing Heavenly Father, thank Him for our blessings, ask Him for things we need, and close “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
” And that’s a good formula. But as with all formulas, it risks tipping over into the formulaic if we’re not careful and mindful.
In Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Ms. Lamott writes of prayers that come from a more profound place. You may have had experiences with what Ms. Lamott calls “cry[ing] out in the deepest desperation” when the formula was simply insufficient to contain your anguish; I know I have. And the beautiful thing about such a prayer to an almighty, all-knowing, all-loving God is that “God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation.” Prayer is about communication, she says. “Prayer is us-humans merely being, as e.e.cummings put it-reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and skeptical.” In many ways, when we are at “our most utterly doomed and skeptical,” our prayers are even more an act of faith and hope than when we feel stronger and more sure precisely because we choose to pray in spite of, or because of, our doubts.
“Help…is the first great prayer” precisely because it often comes at our lowest point. “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…” But of course, we are still human and that shows in our imperfect humility and faith. (Ms. Lamott says with a disarming frankness, “I try not to finagle God. Some days go better than others, especially during election years. I ask that God’s will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it.”) These prayers can help us to incrementally become more humble and faithful. “Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something…These prayers acknowledge that I am clueless; but something else isn’t.” That realization through prayer is key to deepening our relationship with God.
The second type of prayer Ms. Lamott mentions is simply “Thanks”. “Gratitude becomes a habit,” she notes. But more than that, prayers of thanks provide perspective. “We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex. Often we do not get our way, which I hate, hate, hate. But in my saner moments I remember that if we did, usually we would shortchange ourselves.” Creating this habit of gratitude directed toward God can help us recognize when blessings come in disguise and when prayers are answered in a way different from our expectations. “Grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”
But Ms. Lamott finds spoken prayers of “Thanks” incomplete. They must lead to action as well. “Saying and meaning Thanks’ leads to a crazy thought: What more can I give?” And taking subsequent actions based on our individual answers to that question is what changes us.
“Gratitude is not about waving your arms in praise…That’s what we think God would want, because we would love to have a few hundred people applauding us, waving their arms like palm fronds. Instead, God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him…I really believe that God’s idea of a good time is also to see us sharing what we have worked so hard to have…”
Finally, the prayer I think many of us are least familiar with is one of “Wow”. We don’t often, in our religious culture, offer straightforward prayers of praise or wonder. “‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.” It’s the moment of realizing our “nothingness” and His greatness; it spurs humility and gratitude. “When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere. It is so much more comfortable to think that we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together.” It prevents our becoming jaded and cynical. “Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath. That’s why they call it breathtaking.”
Ms. Lamott closes her brief book with this well-known quote by C.S. Lewis: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” And isn’t that what we all want?
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael D. Coogan
Now reading: Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staal
On deck: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Big news! I finally started my very own blog called Build Enough Bookshelves and while it’s still in its formative stages, I’d love to have you stop by. As always, you can also find me on goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.