Plea, gratitude, ritual: the many shapes of prayer

Two books on prayer explore one of most instinctive acts of human beings.

In December 1944, when the advance across Germany of the United States Third Army was being held up by a persistent, drenching rain, General George Patton summoned his chaplain and demanded a prayer for good weather.

"It usually isn't a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men," replied the chaplain.

Undeterred, Patton ordered that such a prayer be written up and given to every man in the Third Army.

The day after the prayer was distributed the sky cleared and a week of perfect weather followed. "That [chaplain] did some potent praying," Patton later exalted as he arranged for the man to receive a Bronze Star.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, two new books about prayer have arrived from major publishing houses. Both contain the above anecdote as well as a certain amount of other overlapping material, although their approaches are quite different.

In Prayer: A History, Smith College professors Philip and Carol Zaleski take an unusually probing and thoughtful look at a topic that might otherwise seem to defy academic treatment.

The Zaleskis define prayer as "action that communicates between human and divine realms." They trace prayer across time and cultures and find it in expressions as diverse as the funerary rites of Neanderthals, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the Sun Dance of the Cree Indians, and the admission by Alcoholic Anonymous members that they need the help of a higher power to stay sober.

They also distinguish between different types of prayers, such as those that ask for specific help ("the prayer of the refugee"), prayers that arise spontaneously at moments of crisis ("de profondis prayer"), and prayer that is part of a routine ("devotional prayer.")

The Zaleskis' treatment of their topic is sensitive. Nonbelievers will appreciate the fact that they don't argue for the efficacy of prayer. (They are, in fact, fairly negative about studies that purport to demonstrate a link between prayer and improved health.)

Those who do believe will enjoy the respectful - and occasionally even poetic - tone applied to the subject, as well as what appears to be a real understanding of the actual process. (Contemplative prayer is a "grueling enterprise," they point out, because the human mind, as capricious as a monkey "eagerly seizes any opportunity for woolgathering.")

Readers who are also Christian Scientists will appreciate the thorough and mostly accurate account of Mary Baker Eddy's teaching and her impact on contemporary ideas about prayer.

One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America looks at prayer through a very different lens. James P. Moore calls his book "a love story," born out of his conviction that prayer has been an essential but insufficiently acknowledged force in American history.

Moore's book is strictly chronological, cataloguing prayer's role in American life, from its centrality in native American life through prayer over the current war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, for the most part, Moore's approach is quantitative rather than qualitative. He is content to note prayer's presence without asking many questions about its depth, sincerity. or efficacy. He certainly succeeds in convincing us that prayer has been present throughout American history, but fails to sufficiently demonstrate that it mattered. (Statements like "Without prayer, slavery would have been even more unbearable" are just not enough.)

He seeks to connect US presidents to prayer, but often not convincingly. (Does the fact that James Polk's wife made him go to church really tell us anything important?)

But the book does offer some gems here and there.

John Adams's account of the impact on the Continental Congress of the reading of a prayerful psalm is lovely. The explanation of the risks African-American slaves took to be able to meet together and pray is awe-inspiring. And the story of Martin Luther King sitting alone at at his kitchen table, telling God that he is at the end of his powers, is poignant indeed.

Of course, writing on so subjective a topic is a challenge at best.

"We can describe the visible world of prayer in sumptuous details ... but the most intimate dance between God and the soul occurs at a level beyond human perception," write the Zaleskis.

Wisely, they leave it at that.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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