Please tell me about intelligent books on prayer
October 31, 2018 7:36 AM   Subscribe

What it says. I'm looking for any intelligent/intellectual engagement with prayer. Could be historical or how to. Any faith tradition is OK, as long as it's not simplistic "ask God for stuff and you'll get it." Please don't answer unless you're willing to explain your recommendation at least a little bit. I can find a list of titles on Amazon. I'm looking for books that MeFites find meaningful or useful. Fiction is OK if it's very high quality. Something like a TED talk would be fine too. Thank you!
posted by FencingGal to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Check out any book by the Episcopal church, which is known for its intellectualism. Their publishing arm is "Cowley Publications," from the Cowley Fathers, the informal name of their monastic order SSJE, the Society of St. John the Evangelist. May I recommend Informed By Faith, written by Mark Bozzuti-Jones, who was briefly an interim rector at my church and is now a priest at Trinity Wall Street. He's written other books too. Opening the Prayer Book is also good.
posted by Melismata at 8:01 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My go-to recommendation for questions like this is Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline (you can find PDFs of it online). Celebration looks at various Christian disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, etc, and focuses on both the history and the purpose behind them. I enjoy his explanation of the rich history many of these items have.

There's perhaps a longer conversation here about how other disciplines in the book (such as fasting, meditation, or submission, for example) mesh into prayer, so you may find other chapters interesting as well.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:15 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was Episcopalian, one of the best books I read was Martin Smith's Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church. It's short and presents a surprisingly feminist and LGBT-friendly view of a sacrament that most Episcopalians view as minor but out of which I gained a lot.

As for the Book of Common Prayer itself and its worldwide variants and histories, I like The Oxford Guide to The Book of Common Prayer.
posted by Somnambulista at 8:27 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I won't be the only one who mentions C.S. Lewis, who wrote several books explaining & justifying his Christianity.

I read them in my late teens when I was skeptical about having been raised a Catholic, and they demonstrated to me that one could be both intellectual and religious.

More recently I read "Here if You Need Me" by Kate Braestrup, who talks about the role that religion plays in her life as she dealt with the grief over her husband's sudden death, and her work to become a UU minister.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:33 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone who has answered so far. Please note that this question is specifically about prayer, not religion or Christianity in general,
posted by FencingGal at 8:41 AM on October 31, 2018

Best answer: A classic in this field is Williams James' Varieties of Religious Experience if you're up for reading something written in the 19th century. James basically undertakes a study to figure out the kinds of experiences common to many religions, and the sorts of activities that prompt them. If you want something more academic, Anne Taves' Fits, Trances, and Visions is a good rundown and analysis of specifically charismatic prayer (speaking in tongues and such).
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:57 AM on October 31, 2018

Best answer: As wenestvedt says, C.S. Lewis is often recommended for those trying to bridge faith and intellect. Though not necessary groundbreaking to anyone who is familiar with Lewis's larger body of work, the recent compilation How To Pray pulls essays, quotes, and excerpts from Lewis's other works to summarize his reflections on prayer. It may be helpful if you haven't read the original source material; if you have, it may be less useful to you.
posted by terilou at 9:03 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will suggest On Prayer by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose famous quote about marching at Selma was that he was praying with his feet.
posted by brookeb at 9:12 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a little poppish but I have always enjoyed the idea that Anne Lamott puts forward, that there are basically only two kinds of prayer, "thank you thank you thank you" and "help me, help me, help me" She puts that forward in her book Help thanks wow, three essential prayers (you can see she has added one) Here she is talking very briefly to NPR about this idea.
posted by jessamyn at 9:30 AM on October 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way by Matthew the Poor

Written by Matta El Meskeen, a contemporary Coptic monk who spent 55 years in prayer.
posted by cessair at 9:31 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not 100% this is exactly what you're looking for, but the first thing that comes to my mind is to find a book about the Ignatian Examen or even the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

A lot of Ignatian spirituality has a center in discernment and in my experience with Jesuit education there is an encouragement of intellectual pursuit, so I have to imagine that there are books out there more about the intellectual side of prayer.

There are umpteen books on Amazon about the spiritual exercises, but I would assume many of them are more centered around the DOING of the spiritual exercises, which doesn't seem quite what you are looking for.
posted by kellygrape at 10:07 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Ignatian spiritual exercises would be exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for, including doing. As I said in my question, these can be historical or how to. Father James Martin has a book with a good intro to the exercises for lay people, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He also has a podcast called The Examen.

These are great guys. Keep 'em coming.
posted by FencingGal at 10:20 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry, I mis-read the question; I apologize.

In that case, yes, the daily exercises are great. I have even explained them to my kids as a good way to end each day -- not as a religious thing, per se, but just as a way of being mindful of what you're doing and who you are. As they get older, and the habit develops, it can be adjusted so that it's secular stuff (was I kind today? Did I make a big mistake? ) and also an examination of whether they loved their neighbor.

James Martin, S.J., who is mentioned above, is a Jesuit writer who is firmly in the world. (He's been interviewed by Stephen Colbert, for example.) He wrote "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything," which is pitched as "a guide to Ignatian spirituality for the general reader"; he is interviewed about it on this podcast. He's pretty chatty, but it will tell you whether you want to hear more of what he says. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 11:00 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If prayer is not just please and thank you, but contemplation and meditation then maybe you'd enjoy the new meditation handbook. It's Buddhist.

The practices here are: contemplation --> a special feeling or realization arises in the heart --> focus on that feeling in order to gradually change our mind.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:24 AM on October 31, 2018

Best answer: I love this little book and have found it helpful. It is Anglican prayers for different times in the day from the daily office.

Also, nthing C.S. Lewis, especially this article.
posted by 4ster at 1:52 PM on October 31, 2018

Best answer: I love C.S. Lewis’ book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. It seems like it’s not as popular or widely read as some of his other works but his ideas, especially of enjoyment reflecting our gratitude back to God like traveling up a sunbeam and of “festooning” prayers we say frequently with our own meaning, have been really helpful and wonderful for me.

Father Thomas Keating, who passed away very recently, also was a great proponent of Centering Prayer, which was also transformative to me. Start with Open Mind, Open Heart. By its nature, Centering Prayer in practice is about not thinking and instead being present and open to God, but Fr. Keating presents it very intelligently, including the history of mysticism in Christianity, and there’s certainly plenty of thinking to be done about Centering Prayer, just not during it.
posted by bananacabana at 3:01 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might find interesting How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg. He talks about the results from brain scans of people praying. There is a review here. In fiction, Elizabeth Goudge has quite a bit of stuff about prayer (especially in The Heart of the Family and The Scent of Water) but I'm not sure how to interpret your mention of quality - these may not be good enough for you.

Are you interested in research on the material culture around prayer too? If so, you could look at prayer nuts.
posted by paduasoy at 4:56 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Material culture - yes! That prayer nut piece is really interesting.

I can see where my quality stipulation isn’t clear, and I’m trying to figure out how to clarify what I mean. I feel like there’s a lot of religious kitsch and simplistic, easy answers, particularly in Christian fundamentalism (I was a fundamentalist as a teenager, so I say this as a former insider). I’m not a fan of religious pop culture. I tend to be oriented more toward the scholarly and toward people who are very serious about religion. Monks who write about prayer are super interesting to me. I’m not going to read Eat, Pray, Love (which might even be good for all I know - but what I know of it is a complete turn-off - and it’s obnoxious that I’m judging someone else’s religious experience, but there you have it). That said, it’s impossible to expect people to be able to completely avoid suggesting things I won’t be interested in. So please just do your best.
posted by FencingGal at 5:22 PM on October 31, 2018

Response by poster: Sorry about threadsitting - you meant quality in fiction. I only like what’s called literary fiction. I have the best luck with Booker Prize winners. I like Hilary Mantel, Marilynne Robinson, Anita Brookner. I would characterize myself as extremely picky.
posted by FencingGal at 5:32 PM on October 31, 2018

You should PM the MeFite named Pater Aletheias and ask.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:33 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am partway through a book called "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" by Paul Elie. It discusses four American, 20th Century writers who converted to Catholicism. It's very good so far, and it uses a lot of their own words to tell the stories of their conversions and faith lives and writing careers.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:36 PM on October 31, 2018

Best answer: If you don’t mind audio rather than written stuff, Rowan Williams has a lecture series on prayer that I have found incredibly illuminating, both on the history of prayer within Christianity (from the Church Fathers to Luther and Calvin to modernity) and on the theological aspects of how we understand prayer. I’ve listened to it several times over the years, and got a lot out of it.

I am also, very slowly, reading Williams’ more recent book, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. This is a much more densely philosophical work than the lecture series—about how the philosophy of language interacts with theological understandings of prayer—and I have been finding some of it hard going. But it is also profoundly insightful and sharp and has changed how I think about prayer.

On a very different and more practical level, I have liked Timothy Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. It’s more didactic and less exploratory than Williams, but it is a good accessible introduction to the Ignatian tradition and how it plays out in the lives of ordinary people.

Finally, you might be interested in collected letters of spiritual direction from the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox tradition. I am familiar with two that I like. There are the letters of St Francois de Sales, which don’t have a lot of premises in common with the modern reader but are still deeply insightful on the Catholic tradition. And the letters of Abbot Chapman, which are much more alive to modernity but stand in the same tradition of analysis, advice and consolation as St Francois de Sales. In general, for the kind of thing you seem to be interested in—books of advice or discussion of the difficulties and challenges of prayer by people who for whom prayer is a central question of their lives—“spiritual direction” is a useful search term.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:49 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, maybe a bit outside what you are looking for, but if it's ok to have stuff that's a little more exercise-y/meditative-y or about how you practice/pray then 2 I have found helpful are:

1) G-d is a Verb -- it's ostensibly about mystical Judaism, which I have mixed feelings about, but it has some nice exercises and some nice "think about things this way" kind of chapters.

2) Jewish with Feeling -- about how to incorporate Jewish practices/prayer like things into daily life in a realistic, thoughtful way that works for the person doing it. It's written for people of all faith traditions so doesn't assume preexisting knowledge. Maybe the Jewish equivalent of the Jesuit book mentioned above?
posted by eleanna at 7:51 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I once asked a friend who was a theologian and seminarian the same question and he recommended Opening to God which I read and found rewarding, though I don't remember much about it (sorry). One thing I remember was the suggestion that a lot of praying is kind of thinking (not at all his words, but my explanation ten years after reading it). So it wasn't all "talking to God" it included reading scripture and sort of imagining what it was like to be those people, like all the things we don't think about, to sort of enter that headspace and appreciate the message more fully. I guess this would be a way of listening to God.

Also, this isn't what you're looking for, but when I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University I found a worthwhile insight. The author was raised a Quaker (not particularly practicing, I think) but decides to do his "study abroad" at Liberty University (the place founded by Jerry Falwell). He goes there and makes an effort to live as the students there do, doing whatever it is they do as genuinely as is possible given that he's not an evangelical Christian. That includes praying. So he makes an honest effort to pray and he says that even though he doesn't actually believe anyone was listening, it was really good for him. And after thinking this over and giving it a shot, briefly, I think the insight is this: When you pray the way evangelicals and surely some others pray (not the way of my Catholic tradition) and really talk to God and sort of give God detailed instructions (so to speak), it requires you to actually THINK about what people need. As a person who is not very good at that naturally, it seems to me that thinking about what people need is step 1 to helping get their needs met. So yes, you pray for God to comfort someone because they lost their job, or whatever, but doing that requires thinking through the emotional and material needs of the people around you and once you notice them, you're bound to do something about them if you can. I'm not sure that's worth reading the whole book over, but there's that anyway.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:15 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you are interested in Judaism, in addition to Heschel, Reuven Hammer's Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service is a classic, and very useful for understanding the more technical aspects of Jewish liturgy.

For spirituality and accessibility to Jewish modes of prayer, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer is incredibly powerful.
posted by epanalepsis at 7:43 AM on November 2, 2018

Tim Keller is known as a thoughtful, intellectual leaning, well respected pastor and author who has a book about Prayer. He shares about his journey into understanding and struggling with prayer during a particularly challenging time in his life and battle with thyroid cancer.
posted by roaring beast at 12:58 PM on November 4, 2018

A few I have appreciated:

2000 Years of Prayer--comprehensive survey of prayers in the Christian tradition. The introductory materials are worthwhile, but the chief value of this book is as an anthology of various ways to pray. Read through it and a few are bound to resonate with you.

One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, has a book about Praying the Psalms, which is as good an intellectual take on the Psalms as you are likely to find, but also an introduction to the Psalms as a resource for prayer life.

Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline was mentioned above, but since it's prayer you are looking at, I'd skip it in favor of his Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home. I don't know that Foster really qualifies as intellectual per se, but he's very, very thoughtful.

My own prayer practice has been greatly enriched by Phyllis Tickle's Divine Hours. It's basically a Protestant-ized version of the liturgical pray tradition of the Catholic church, but I find it very meaningful. There are editions for every season, plus a pocket version for travel.

C.S. Lewis' Letters to Malcolm, mentioned above, was my first introduction to really thinking about prayer, and still a favorite. His phrase "the irksomeness of prayer" resonated with me, and it was a long, long time before prayer stopped being irksome to me. Lewis at least met me know I wasn't alone in that.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:46 PM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

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