A Book of Uncommon Prayer:
As soon as I could talk my mother taught me how to pray. I prayed on my knees by my bed at night and if my mind went blank, she whispered words to help me along. I prayed in church, both silently and -- when reciting the Lord’s Prayer -- aloud. I prayed at school, folding my hands over my lunch box and thanking God for my food. I recited prayers and memory verses—Psalm 23, Isaiah 40:31, John 3:16—with my classmates. I asked God to watch over my family. I thanked him for my sister and our dogs and for my very own personal guardian angel. I asked Him to make my grandfather -- who'd suffered a stroke -- better. I asked him to help me remember facts and figures so that I might do well on my tests, to help me find my lost wallet or misplaced orthodonture. Nothing was too large or too small to warrant a prayer. God’s eyes were on the sparrow. He was watching over me as well.
I don't know when my prayers started to feel obligatory. I can't pinpoint a moment where I, as someone who was addressing the Divine Other, became self-conscious, or when I recognized something phony in my petitions. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. But it happened.
It wasn’t that I stopped believing in God. It was that I started re-imagining Who or What God might be. Asking the Source of All Life to send his angels to watch over me as I drove -- a prayer my father and mother said before embarking upon long trips -- or to help me find my keys or my phone or to alter the events of the day so that, in the end, things would turn out in my favor, seemed presumptuous and self-centered. Not that I wasn't -- and not that I'm not-self-centered. I just wasn't convinced that God—as the mysterious and omniscient sustainer of the universe -- could be called upon to function as a sort of everyday Santa Claus in the sky, dispensing blessings only upon those who knew how to submit the proper petitions.
The first time I became aware of the power of the Book of Common Prayer was on a Sunday morning in Monroe, North Carolina, in the church where my wife and I had been married. I was standing next to my stepmother-in-law, a woman whose southern accent and idiosyncratic grammar ("Don't he look like his daddy?" and "Ya'll ain't leaving yet are you?") I might've described as representative of many people I knew who’d grown up in my home state. But when she repeated the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer -- without even cracking open the book, as she appeared to have memorized each and every one that the parishioners recited that day—she pronounced words with a solemn and resonant precision. The languid flow of her "everyday voice" -- in which words seemed to ooze from one into another -- was now characterized by sharply defined pronunciation. It almost seemed as if the words of the prayer book were inhabiting -- and thus, momentarily, possessing—her body. Though I have no doubt that she believed the prayers to be manifestations of her particular beliefs, it seems unlikely that, without the aid of the Book of Common Prayer, she would've been able to articulate herself with such exactness and economy. One might say that her speech moved from sphere of the domestic -- a place ruled, it seemed, by the recycling of everyday slang and idiomatic banter -- into the realm of the mystical, where language was charged but sober, terrestrial but divine.
I’d grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist church -- a denomination that honored the tradition of extemporaneous prayer. When kneeling during a service, one wasn[t ever quite sure where a pastor's linguistic meanderings might lead, and thus, when such an entreaty -- powered by the speaker’s desire to construct a substantial address -- might end. Not so in the Anglican Church. Most prayers appear on a specific page of the Book of Common Prayer; as such, they enter the eyes and the ears, and one can read and follow along. The book’s preface, written in 1789, reveals that its aims are to express "what the truths of the Gospel are; and earnestly beseeching Almighty God to accompany with his blessing every endeavor for promulgating them to mankind in the clearest, plainest, most affecting and majestic manner." A lofty goal, perhaps, but one that, I discovered, in reading these petitions, seemed achievable. The prayers were lyrical but measured. Evocative, yet clear. Earnest, but never sentimental. Heartfelt, but reasonable. These prayers, they often sounded to my ears like poetry. Like literature. And the more I thought about it, the more that made sense. Prayers -- regardless of what they might attempt to express -- are made up of words. Of language. So why shouldn't those of us who pray take care to ensure that ours resemble pretty little houses for our hopes and dreams to live?
There's a section in the Book of Common Prayer called “Prayers and Thanksgivings." In it, one finds prayers with titles like, "For all Sorts of Conditions of Man," "For Our Enemies," "For Sound Government," "For Social Justice," "For Agriculture," "For Those Who Live Alone." These prayers, as expressions of fundamental human concerns, have -- I'd argue -- the power to transform awareness and elevate consciousness, regardless of whether a reader considers him or herself a believer. If nothing else, the prayers promote a spirit of humility by directing a reader's thoughts toward a world made of -- and lived in -- by others. Ornate but never ostentatious, they request that we be lead—along with our enemies -- from "prejudice to truth," or that lawmakers might fulfill their obligations "in the community of nations," or "that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease." Reciting them, one can indulge the notion that it might be possible to speak reality into being.
I started this project with the thought that it would become an homage to the Book of Common Prayer. I also assumed that I would write every prayer in it. But when I mentioned the idea to my friend Courtney Maum, a writer whose work I admire a great deal, and who I provided with a list of possible titles, she asked -- excitedly -- if I might open it to other contributors, because she would love the chance to write one about the guy who "drives the little truck behind the wide load trailer." Hm, I thought. Interesting. Maybe I shouldn’t try to write them all myself. Perhaps I should enlist other writers whose work I admired to help. After all, the original Book of Common Prayer had been composed by a group of writers. Why not construct this one in a similar spirit?
I invited potential contributors without regard to -- and, in most cases, no knowledge whatsoever of -- their religious inclinations; I simply wanted to see what happened when writers confronted the assignment of writing a prayer. I encouraged them to write about topics that were "uncommon" -- that is, things and people and places that might not usually be prayed for. I wanted to see what happened when poets and writers of literary prose entered this particular form, how they’d push against the conventions to make something new, and -- hopefully -- expand the notion of prayer as a genre. The result, I’m pleased to report, is a book of prayers that is as diverse as its contributors. There are angry prayers, earnest prayers, sarcastic prayers, funny prayers, prayers somber and prayers joyful. There are prayers that address everyday concerns -- such as children in rear-facing safety seats, gluten, flight attendants, or the deactivation of Facebook accounts -- and prayers that explore more extraordinary subjects -- like alien abductees, actors in pornographic films, and the unlikely heroes of apocalypse movies. While many of the prayers reveal themselves to be the work of atheists, agnostics, or steadfast believers, many of them unfold in ways that refuse to disclose the writers' religious affiliations. I like not knowing. I enjoy inhabiting the faith of the devout just as much as I like inhabiting the doubt of an unbeliever. After all, prayer -- as a genre, as a rhetorical mode -- encompasses so much of what we writers struggle with everyday: the attempt at expression, the articulation of desires, the hope of resolution. The prayers in this book are spaces of repose, of curiosity, wonder, and regret. They are meant to be seen, but also to be read aloud, not only because they were meant to live in the body, but also to be heard by others, in the hope that those hearers may -- if only for a moment -- experience the transformations that accompany the honest and clear expressions of what it means to be alive.
— Matthew Vollmer, editor