Plea, Gratitude, Ritual: The Many Shapes of Prayer ; Two Books on Prayer Explore One of Most Instinctive Acts of Human Beings

By Kehe, Marjorie | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Plea, Gratitude, Ritual: The Many Shapes of Prayer ; Two Books on Prayer Explore One of Most Instinctive Acts of Human Beings


Kehe, Marjorie, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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