Archive for January, 2008

joy-found.jpgPoking around on the internet the other day, I came across a blog called “The Mala Prayer Bead Project.” The blog, which just got started last December, is the work of someone who calls herself Joy Found. According to her profile, Joy is a 38-year-old single mother whose spirituality is a blend of eastern and western. She works as a multimedia artist and lives in Howell, Mich.

The Mala Prayer Bead Project has three parts. First, Joy wants to make a “World Mala,” a Hindu/Buddhist string of prayer beads made from 108 beads contributed by 108 different people from around the world. She is also conducting an international “bead swap” for people who want to make their own malas or other form of prayer beads from beads given to them by others from far away. The third part of her Mala Bead Project is a personal pledge to make one mala each month of this year and give it away to someone in need of the comfort of prayer beads. I encourage you all to visit this site and read the posts. Joy promises to post pictures of the World Mala as it grows.

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eatpraylove.jpgMaybe I should start a blog called “Behind the Curve” because I am always the last one to read the book everyone else is reading. Partly this is because I have to do a lot of work-related reading (latest requirement: Jim Wallis‘s “Great Awakening”) and partly because I am a terrible book snob. I mean, if everyone is reading it, it can’t be that good, right? I came to this snobbishness after being burned – I read “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown only because I couldn’t, as a responsible religion reporter, hold out any longer, and I do not have the words to describe how foul I found it. What trash! Read like a screenplay – a bad screnplay. And I waited quite a while before reading “The Historian” (in a book about Dracula, shouldn’t he appear before the book is three-fourths gone?) by Elizabeth Kostova. I’ll never get back those hours wasted on rural Romanian folk customs that had NOTHING to do with the story. Sigh. Still, Brown and Kostova don’t need my endorsement. They and their bank accounts are doing just fine without me, thank you very much.

egilbert.jpgDitto Elizabeth Gilbert, whose spiritual memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” has topped the NY Times besteller list for more weeks than I have teeth. I’ve heard she was also on a little daytime talkshow called “Oprah.” But this time, I am happy to report, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, not the least because of what she says about contemplative prayer, one of the subjects of this blog. It is also just a damn good read by a very fine writer. I have been thinking about it a lot since I finished reading it earlier this week. (For a summary of the book, click here.)

hindu-mala.jpgFirst, I was bound to like this book because its cover image includes a Hindu mala curled into the word “pray.” A mala is the Hindu form of prayer beads, consisting of 108 beads. In the introduction, Gilbert describes some of the symbolism of the mala – how its 108 beads have all sorts of hidden three’s – a very symbolic number in many religions. The number 108 can represent perfection because it is not only divisible by three, but its individual numbers add up to 9, which can be divided into three 3’s. I discuss the meaning and symbolism of the Hindu mala in the first chapter of “Bead One, Pray Too. “

The numbers are important to Gilbert, too. She describes her travels through the three countries of the subtitle in 108 sections, almost like dateless diary entries, charting her spiritual progress from a sobbing, depressed blob to a wiser woman who has learned perspective. Each section is marked by a black-and-white image of a mala bead. My favorite was number 58 for this depiction of the nature of prayer:

“Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can’t even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I am aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well-considered intention. If you don’t have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift . . . Prayers can become stale and drone into the boring and familiar if you let your attention stagnate. In staying alert, I am assuming custodial responsibility for the maintenance of my soul.” (page 177)

This sent shivers down my back. In my own prayer practice, the biggest thing I battle is boredom. “It’s time to pray, so what do I pray? That again? Oy. ” But Gilbert reminded me that it isn’t enough to say the words, or even to sit in prayer. I have to be present in what I am asking for. If I don’t take it seriously, how can I expect God to?

Since I finished this book I have been trying to bring a new freshness and immediacy to my daily prayer bead session. I am not always successful, sometimes getting fidgety, sometimes finding my mind has wandered halfway around the world before I remember to call it back. And Gilbert tells us that is okay, too. Her own daily meditation is filled with frustration. But she sticks with it and comes out at the end a much more peaceful person. This was a GREAT read.

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Ron Sider’s Prayer

Ron SiderOne of the great joys of being a journalist is that you get to talk to all sorts of interesting and important people and ask them impertinent questions. Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Sider about his forthcoming book, “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?” for a short piece for Publishers Weekly. Mr. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, is one of the founders of the progressive evangelical movement and a thoughtful Christian. He is the author of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” a book that, when it appeared in 1977, sent shock waves through the Christian community and led to a major rethinking, in many circles, of what a truly Christian life should look like. We talked for about 30 minutes about the subject of his new book, what a biblically-balanced political philosophy for American evangelicals could and should look like (think more concern about poverty and justice and less about personal morality). At the end of the interview, I asked if I might ask him a totally unrelated question. Being the classy guy and gentleman that he is, he said certainly. “Do you, by any chance, use prayer beads in your personal prayer practice,” I asked. I knew this was a long shot, as most evangelicals would be suspicious of such a practice. Mr. Sider said he did not use prayer beads. Like any good journalist, I had a follow-up question: “May I ask you what is your favorite prayer?”

He was very quick with his response, perhaps because a good prayer is ever close at hand. “My favorite prayer comes from second Cornithians 3:18 where Paul says that with unveiled face we look directly into the face of Christ and reflect his glory as in a mirror and are day by day being transformed into the image of Christ.”

Here’s the scripture he’s referring to:

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (NIV)
“So my prayer,” Mr. Sider continued, “which comes from that, is, ‘Lord, please make me more like you.'”

I like it. Short and simple, direct and strainghtfoward. Easy to remember, too. A good prayer for weeks or decades beads, or any other bead on any set of prayer beads you may come up with.

The same day I interviewed Mr. Sider, I also spoke with Jim Wallis, another titan of the progressive evangelical movement. I’ll write about his response to my question in a future post.

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mlk-photo.jpgHappy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day! Is it okay to say “happy” MLK Day? I mean, he was a martyr, so is that really appropriate? I don’t know. But I do know I want to mark the day not just by sleeping in and goofing off, but by really thinking about and remembering this great man.

So I was very pleased to find a story about how Dr. King turned to prayer at a particularly dark time in his life. The story appears in Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer and was written by Coretta Scott King. You can read it on Beliefnet.com.

Here’s my favorite part of the story Mrs. King tells:

“It is said that every prayer is heard and every prayer is answered in some way, and I believe this is true for people of all faiths. I still believe that the millions of prayers spoken by African Americans from the Middle Passage on down to today have been heard by a righteous and loving God.”

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phyllis_portrait_1801.jpgEarlier this week, I wrote a post about an interview I had with Phyllis Tickle about her forthcoming book “The Words of Jesus,” in which she strips the Gospels and the Book of Acts of narration and context to leave the words of Jesus. Just the words of Jesus. As I said in my previous post, I think the book will be a great source for prayers for prayer beads. The interview, published in Publishers Weekly‘s online newsletter Religion BookLine, was, of necessity, quite short. So I wanted to include the full interview here.

KIMBERLY: What do you gain by separating the words of Jesus from the rest of the Gospels?

PHYLLIS: When you take away the narrative and the contextual pacing you get power – rata-tat-tat. It is almost like being in front of a machine gun. David Neff [editor of Christianity Today] speaks of it as being enraging. It’s the pacing that is really hits you first. The more subtle thing that it takes a little while to perceive is that you’ve got an intellectual overlay especially since the Reformation or the Enlightenment. Even though you are not conscious of it, there is this layer of “I am reading the words of Jesus in the book of John, therefore I am reading a summation of what Jesus said 70 years after the fact.” Or, “I am reading Luke, oh he’s the gentile, so I am reading the gentile take on what Jesus said.” You filter. And when you get rid of the author, you have removed the filter. The third thing that fascinated me is that nobody really knows all that Jesus said. We are never going to know because nobody was standing there with video or audio equipment. And so much of what is said must have been in his body gesture or intonation. But when you do this, you quadrulate or triangulate – here is this speech that occurs in three different gospels – you realize the core of it is exposed much more cleanly because whatever else he said, this is what hung in three minds [of the writers of the Gospels].

There is a focus group established at the Episcopal cathedral in Memphis that went through the manuscript and anger was one of the first things that surfaced for them. They kept saying, “He [Jesus] couldn’t have said that. I never read that before.” That’s the power of it. It took them back to the original translations and they were, “My God, he did say this.” Some of them admitted they didn’t like him very much because he ceases to be the caring shepherd and he becomes something very dramatic, something startling different from what we think he was. Whether you like him or not you understand why the crowd followed him. What this man is saying is so radical and so clean and clear it is really a shock. It just rocked me. All the emotions the focus group went through I went through too. I said, “This cannot be.”

K: What do you lose?

P: You do lose the guru. You would never confuse this man with Mahatma Ghandi or the Prophet [Muhammad]. You lose any sense of the guru and you lose any sense of the sweet child, holy, meek and mild. You lose the stereotypes. This man is God incarnate. He claims it, he speaks it. It is as if Sinai is moving among us, speaking its own Torah with no Moses. It is Sinai on legs.

K: What did this process teach you about Jesus?

P: I came to hear him first instead of visualizing him. Another one of the preconceptions we bring – one of the problems with Roman and Protestant Christianity is we have been willing to visaulize and pictorialize the divinity. It distorts [the divinity], no question. If you come to this as a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, you have in your head a visual image of Jesus – whatever it is, you’ve got one. You come to the words through a picture. Now there is no picture. The voice is so overwhelming that it shatters all the pictures. The heard Jesus is inside you, not something outside you. I say in the reflections it is a great deal like being inside a room instead of outside it and seeing through a window what is going on in there. The second thing is his personality – that he is this persona that is stark and, well, godly. He is not some wandering carpenter who went for a new job. All of that is gone. What you’ve got is what probably made the children of Israel cringe and say don’t let us see this. Also, he says I have not come to destroy the law but to fulfill the law. He is an actualist, a biblical actualist, not a literalist. He condemns that. And he is not a metaphorist. He says this thing is what this thing is – period. It is the holiness in it, it is the soul in it that is its actuality and you cannot confine it. He says, it is here and I am it. The claiming of it is so much more dramatic this way. Also, there were some intellectual surprises – he didn’t say much about healing – only about 22 sayings. He is almost terse about it. It is all in the narrative – Luke says he heals 5,000 and never a recorded word.

I went to the last focus group in December as their guest, and they were laughing about not liking Jesus for a while and asked me if I had gone through the same thing. I had a period where my reaction was, I don’t like him. And then I realized that is an irrelevant question – and they all laughed at me. I don’t have to like him – this is God. It is a question you don’t have to ask, and it is almost irreverent. Like is something you do with a thing, one of them said, the implication being that Jesus had been a thing prior to this, something you manipulate. This Jesus won’t manipulate. Therefore like is an inapplicable verb.

K: How do you hope a reader will use this book?

P: Very slowly. That is what the focus group discovered. It is fine to read through the thing, a page or two at a time, otherwise you won’t be able to take it in. It overwhelms you. There is a need to read one or two [pages] and put it back down. I hope they will read it with some sense of amazement. But slowly. I just got an email this morning from one of the members of the focus group who are meeting again tonight and he said he could hardly wait to get back in the group because the group was so comforting and it was so discomforting to read it alone. David Crumm [a columnist with the Detroit Free Press] the other day was doing an interview and he said what he hoped Jossey-Bass would do next is take out the reflections part and just publish the sayings of Jesus. He said what this really is is a new New Testament and I think he is probably right. I had not thought of it that way. It is a scripture. You can be stripped naked of all the preconceptions and the conditions that you have come to the scriptures dressed in or robed in or anaesthetized in and meet here stark naked what your God is.

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PW CoverPublishers Weekly has given Bead One, Pray Too a starred review, the highest the magazine gives! I am so, so happy! The review will appear in the Jan. 28 issue of the print magazine, but can be viewed here online at the magazine’s religion book newsletter, Religion BookLine.

The review means a lot to me for a number of reasons. First, since Dec. I have been suffering a loss of faith in my own ability to write, say or do anything worthwhile. I have written a few posts about this terrible depression and prayer. The review is a sorely needed vote of confidence. I think I’ll print it out and tape it to my desk so when my negative tape begins its endless loop in my head I can hopefully stop it – or at least turn down its volume – with a look at the review. Second, PW reviewed my first book, Faith Beyond Faith Healing, and it was a real stinker. Ouch. And they did not review my second book, Fabric of Faith, at all. So this feels great!

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I recently interviewed Phyllis Tickle for Publishers Weekly magazine’s online newsletter, Religion BookLine. You can read the brief interview here, and in a future post will include the interview in its entirety.

Words of Jesus coverThe subject of the interview is Tickle’s new book, The Words of Jesus, in which she lifts the words of Jesus from the narrative and context of the Gospels and the Book of Acts. The result is part missal, part scripture, part devotional and part radical call to belief and action. It occurred to me that it would also make a great source for prayers to say on prayer beads. The book comes out from Jossey-Bass in early February. I’ll include more about it when I finally get my hands on a copy.

Phyllis TickleTickle is the former senior religion editor at Publishers Weekly. She has also been a mentor to me, helping in the conception of all three of my books. Before I sat down to begin Bead One, Pray Too I checked my ideas and some of the overarching themes with her. I do not know a more knowledgeable or a kinder person than Phyllis. Everything she writes, says or does is done with great passion, deep respect and fine intellect.

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What is the WhatLast night, as I was lying in bed reading my book club’s current selection, “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, I came across this passage:

“I have been reading Mother Teresa and Brother Roger‘s book called Seeking the Heart of God, and each time I revisit it, I find different passages that seem written for me, describing what I feel in your absence. In the book, Brother Roger says this to me: ‘Four hundred years after Christ, a believer names Augustine lived in North Africa. He had experienced misfortunes, the death of his loved one. One day he was able to say to chrst: “Light of my heart, do not let me darkness speak to me.” In his trials, St. Augustine realized that the presence of the Risen Christ had never left him; it was the light in the midst of his darkness.'”

The book tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan War, his many trials and hardships, first as an unaccompanied minor during the Sudanese civil war and then as a young man trying to make his way in America. It is an unforgetable book – both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I am loving it.

Last night, as I read the paragraph above, I literally felt a jolt in my chest. I have been feeling so horribly depressed the last several weeks. I think this is one of the worst bouts of depression I have ever had. I feel frozen in Jell-o some mornings, unable to move a single limb, let alone get out of bed. Somehow, I have managed to get up and get dressed and get something done each day – but not much. There has been a lot of crying, then laughing, then crying again. Over nothing. I have felt as if there is this werid and moving darkness around me. It feels like a threat – like something evil come to swallow me whole.

Saint Augustine of HippoBut when I read that passage last night, that prayer of Saint Augustine sent a bolt right through me. To my ears, it sounded like the cry of a soul in deep despair, a cry I could identify with. Its image of a light inside the heart made sense to me – it was something I could visualize and use to fight the darkness. And the description of the darkness as “my darkness” resonates with me, too. It is my darkness, created wholecloth by me and I am the only one who can overcome it – with some help through prayer, I hope. I immediately committed the prayer to memory and when I turned out the light a few moments later I said it over and over again in my head. Today I am going to pray it on my prayer beads. It is like a beacon against the darkness – a darkness that may be all in my head, but feels all to real and dangerous.

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Two years ago, my friend Daniela and I decided to head into San Francisco on the Saturday before Christmas to play tourists. It was so much fun we decided to do it again this year.

So on the Saturday before Christmas, we took BART to the city, got off at Powell Street and headed up to Union Square to see the lights and last-minute shoppers. Then we headed up to Grace Cathedral via the cable car. So far, all was a replay of last year’s trip, except for one thing – in my bag I had Daniela’s Christmas present: a set of red, black and gold glass prayer beads I made especially for her. I planned to give them to her inside Grace Cathedral and show her how to use them as we sat in its hushed light.

Grace Cathedral at NightBut when we reached Grace, there was a ticketed concert going on inside, preventing us from going in. No matter. We settled ourselves on a stone bench skirting the cathedral’s outdoor labyrinth. I whipped the package out of my bag and said, “Merry Christmas.”

As she unwrapped, I explained that this was not a piece of jewelry, but a set of prayer beads I had made for her with her needs (as I understood them) in mind. I said I had chosen to make them red not just because it is her favorite color, but it also seems to be the color she surrounds herself with. It is a color that seems to represent, for her, her idea of herself. I made them using the Episcopal rosary format not because she is Episcopalian (she isn’t) or even Christian (she isn’t) but because it seemed the most manageable for her.I explained that she could pray anything on them that she wanted to and to any being she wanted to.

Daniela is a very spiritual person, but her spirituality is very different from mine. I would describe her as more New Age than I am and with a good dose of woman-centered paganism thrown in. She has many times mentioned to me that she feels connection to goddesses and spirit guides and she has a deep reverence for the divine feminine. She does not pray in a way I would pray, but “puts out” energy and ideas and thoughts. So for her prayer beads a cross or other specifically religious icon would not have been right, so I used a red crystal heart for a terminal charm. I had intended to use a goddess charm, but that did not seem right. I think it is because more than being guided by “the goddess,” as I understand the idea, she is guided by a belief that the universe is a positive place full of love and intuition and an overaching goodness. A heart, it seemed, captured that better than a goddess.
Daniela loved them. She was very moved and started to tear up. And I was deeply pleased that I had been able to give her something that I hoped would honor her spirit and her soul and not just a holiday requirement for giving a present.

I then suggested that we walk the labyrinth together. Since this would be her first time using prayer beads and maybe her first time walking a labyrinth, I suggested that rather than trying to come up with prayers for the beads, she hold onto them and keep in her mind an idea of what she hoped for as she she walked. I said she could think of this as dedicating the beads to a certain purpose – perhaps bringing goodness and love into her life, or a renewed sense of purpose, or whatever she felt a need to speak to the universe about.

I had also brought a set of prayer beads (I have a set for almost every bag and pocket I own!) and took mine out. Because I knew we would go to Grace and I hoped we would walk the labyrinth, I had brought a set of Episcopal prayer beads made of natural colored stone (like the labyrinth) and with a pewter labyrinth as a terminal charm.

It was very cold as we walked there in the shadow of Grace Cathedral. I held my prayer beads in my gloved hands in front of me and began an invocation of the Trinity – In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit . . .” as I took my first step in. Daniela waited a minute or so and then entered behind me. I moved on to the Lord’s Prayer on the invitatory bead and then on to a favorite Psalm verse for the cruciforms and the prayer of Julian of Norwich (“And all shall be well . . .”) for the weeks beads. I found that as I walked my whole being seemed to slow down to the tempo my feet and my fingers were keeping. I could focus on every syllable, every step. I also became very attuned to the sounds about me – car horns, feet on stone steps, people chatting as they passed by, the roar of a bus engine – but was not distracted by them. Rather, it was as if I became intensely focused on what was here and what was now – me, the prayers and the world.

After we completed the labyrinth, we sat on the stone bench again and were very quiet. It was a lovely, still moment in the midst of an otherwise busy and bustling day and a sea of serenity in an otherwise overwhelming time of year.

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