Book on the history of prayer informs, inspires

Long ago, I remember assauging my boredom during a visit to my great aunt Freda’s house by poring through her encyclopedia collection. As I recall, there was a book for each letter of the alphabet. I guess I found descriptions of koalas and Kazakhstan, revolutions and Robin Hood to be more interesting that whatever my parents were discussing over the dining room table with Aunt Freda and her sister, my grandmother.

Today, we have Google to inform us on every subject under the sun, but I still have an interest in nonfiction and history which inspired me to pick up Prayer: A History by Philip and Carol Zaleski.

Described as “thorough and fascinating,” which I found to be accurate, the book begins with the foundations of prayer and covers the subject in a way that embraces all faiths. We humans have been praying since the Neanderthal age when, archaeological evidence shows, cavemen mastered fire, wore furs, used tools, lived in groups and deliberately buried their dead⁠—an act that is evidence of belief in the afterlife, according to the Zaleskis.

Early on, the work clarifies the difference between prayers and spells, which I found enlightening:

The prayer of the magician is an incantation, a charm, a chanted or inscribed word of power used to achieve a particular end … . The prayer of the priest is an invocation, the spoken or sung portion of a sacrifice, which by honoring the gods attains both temporal and eternal goods.

So a spell conjures something from the words themselves. A prayer beseeches a god to achieve its aims.

Rather than organizing the book by describing types of prayers, such as petition, confession, intercession, adoration and healing, for example, the Zaleski’s choose to explore prayer through those who pray: the refugee, the devotee, the ecstatic and the contemplative. This approach testifies to the power of prayer by giving credit to the ones who pray.

In the section on devotees, the authors address the goal of praying without ceasing, which is commanded in the Bible and in other religious traditions as well:

How can we pray at all times, when we must sleep and eat and work and procreate and love and worship and engage in the countless other necessities and pastimes that enchain our lives? That angels pray without ceasing we can readily accept, for they are bloodless creatures, with little to do but sing God’s praises, girdled in the web of life and death. Yet traditions from around the globe affirm that ceaseless prayer can indeed be achieved.

First of all, isn’t this writing a beautiful way to question the theory? The writing throughout is like this: reverent and irreverent, secular and ecumenical at the same time. The Zaleskis proceed to describe a number of examples of people who manage to “pray without ceasing.”

Late in the book, the authors delve into the power of prayer and its ability to heal. This, too, I found authoritative without being wishful, noting the lack of proof (“the literary style of the metaphysical healing movements is spun sugar, as grandiose and insubstantial as the cotton candy at a country fair”) while acknowledging the accepted world view of the many millions who pray and believe that prayers are answered.

Prayer: A History is the sort of tome that appeals to the historian, the believer, the skeptic and the innovator who is looking for new ways to approach an ancient act.


If you’re attempting to pray without ceasing, I’m not sure I can help you, but if you’d like a daily reminder to connect with the divine, subscribe to Bell Tower Prayer’s daily email.

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