After the shootings in Newtown I was obsessed with the news of the massacre. For days I couldn’t stop watching television coverage, couldn’t stop checking updates online. As much as I didn’t watch to watch, I couldn’t stop. I have a kindergartener, and the grief I felt thousands of miles away literally drove me to my knees. The only thing that felt appropriate was to pray, but in light of such a senseless act, I found myself speechless.
I’ve always been intimated by prayer. I can say the Lord’s Prayer with the best of them. On many a night I go to bed after whispering a prayer I memorized when I was 10, but I don’t know Bible verses or parables. I can’t compose a prayer that would make a congregation weep.
Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies to read on vacation. I was instantly enamored, but for every quote, every anecdote that struck a chord, the one thing that stood above all else was Lamott’s interpretation of prayer. In Traveling Mercies she proposes the best prayers are “Thank you” and “Help me.” Those are my kinds of prayers.
And that is why I was immediately drawn to Lamott’s latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Consider it a primer for prayer, an elaboration on the thought she introduces in Traveling Mercies. It reinforces her belief that prayers should be simple.
If you aren’t familiar with Anne Lamott, she has been writing since 1979, when she published her first book of fiction. I particularly enjoy her non-fiction. Operating Instructions, the autobiographical account of her pregnancy and childbirth and the first year of her son Sam’s life, is the perfect antidote to smug, trendy pregnancy books. She has written about motherhood, family, alcoholism, addiction, recovery, and throughout her work are the themes of faith, forgiveness, gratitude, grace.
Lamott’s latest book evenly covers the essential prayers of Help, Thanks and Wow, with a closing chapter called, naturally, Amen.
“Help” is the prayer we issue when we are at our worst, our “most degraded and isolated.” This is the prayer I think most of us would utter now. In a world of violence and global warming and the fiscal cliff, “Help” is the first great prayer. There are great prayers in the world – the “good china of prayers” – but when people around the world are at the end of their rope, regardless of their belief or religion, they ask for help. To do so is to relinquish control to a greater being or greater force.
There are many reasons to say “Thanks.” It may be relief. It may be true gratitude or appreciation or anything in between, “from the daily break of good luck and found money, to the magical, mystical magnetic force or quiet or exuberant relief, when you know something – God, fate, luck, kismet, the law, Powerball – has smiled on you big-time.” But the “Thanks” prayer is important because it leads to gratitude. It becomes action and behavior and habit.
“Wow” is the third great prayer. It is “offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unhidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” Lamott believes there are two kinds of “wow” prayers: lowercase and uppercase. Lowercase wows are the daily blessings we often take for granted: clean sheets, hot shower, good coffee. Uppercase wows are wondrous, often mind-boggling or miraculous: the Grand Canyon, childbirth.
The “Wow” chapter was my favorite part of the book. No matter your religious or spiritual beliefs, anyone can surely marvel at a beautiful sunset or a child giggling on a merry-go-round. And the paragraphs that talk about the wonders of each season are truly poetic.
In the “Amen” chapter Lamott sums up the attitude and reason behind prayer. She quotes C.S. Lewis, who said, “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.” You don’t have to know who you are praying to or what you are specifically praying for, but just the act of slowing down, finding a corner of quiet, and asking for help or expressing gratitude or wonder, is a start.
At 102 pages (tall, narrow pages at that) Help, Thanks, Wow is certainly something you can read on a rainy afternoon or over a couple lunch hours. Even if you don’t buy Lamott’s concept of prayer, her writing is, as usual, entertaining, humorous, bittersweet and thought provoking. You don’t have to agree with her concepts to appreciate her thoughts. The next time a stranger helps you fix a flat tire or you see a perfect snowfall on Christmas day, you’ll think about this book.