Humanist Simone Weil did it: “There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” Franny Glass, sophisticated heroine of the darkly erudite J.D. Salinger’s coming of age novels, did it too, obsessing on what is called the "Jesus Prayer": “I mean the point is, did you ever hear of anything so fascinating in your life, in a way.” Even the mad, mad Salvador Dali obliquely did it by devoting a significant chunk of his artistic life to replicating, celebrating, denigrating and focusing on the theme of the medieval painting The Angelus, his compulsive strivings a form of the very prayer ritual he sought at times to expose and ridicule.
The authors of this book are scholars of prayer and spirituality, and they bring to their task a wide sweep of tolerant research which looks upon
Internet prayer and prayer healing experimentation as part of the same basic impulse that caused our ancient forebears to raise incantations to the rain and sun, to ask the great spirits for a blessing on their crops and their progeny. Sometimes, we learn, the incantations were strategically planned so as to fall a few days before the rainy season was nearly certain to begin. Still, by praying, the people believed they were fulfilling the wishes of the god's and bolstering the wisdom of the shamans.
The book is a thorough examination of prayer - what it is, where it happens, why it is so basic to our lives. Two saintly people are often referred to as exemplars of the prayerful life: Ramakrishna Paramhansa of Calcutta and St. Teresa of Avila. Both were likely to fall into ecstasies at any moment, affecting those around them with their beatific smiles and otherworldly bliss. St. Teresa wrote a guidebook to prayer and to the stages of the religious life that is unparalleled. Of Ramakrishna, we have the writings of his disciples and a rare photograph, included in the book, of the master in a transported state: "Ramakrishna's eyes are closed, and a slight smile plays along the lips. His features radiate...What? Light? Glory? Bliss? Happiness? All of these and something more..."
The authors contend that painters and poets also pray, through their art and writings. T.S. Eliot and George Herbert, Samuel Johnson and Daniel Defoe all treated prayer and spiritual endeavor with manly reverence. There is a fascinating description of the origins of the
Pentecostal movement, begun by a white man, taken up by a black man, then wrested away again by racist whites when it seemed to be growing into a truly integrated religion. Likewise, we are given the story of Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who was saved by God when nothing more was left of his life than a ruined shell.
As I read through the book I found myself trying out different prayers and thinking more about how I wanted to order my own prayer life, which hadn't really been a major factor in my thinking heretofore. So, although this book doesn't claim to be a manual for prayer, it can serve that purpose. No serious student of spiritual philosophy of whatever religion or of all should bypass Prayer: A History. Not a bad read for an atheist either - might as well know how the other side operates.