Maybe 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.
Ditto 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.)
First, 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.