I admit it: this past year, I went for months without having a disciplined time of prayer. I didn't stop praying altogether, of course. I sent up "arrow prayers" (God, help me get through this morning without collapsing!) and felt growing guilt over my missed devotions. I wasn't suffering from doubt: God was still real and powerful to me. But the act of prayer itself was empty. When I folded my hands to pray, my words yielded nothing. I'm doing something wrong, I thought.

Halfway through October, I picked up Susan Howatch's Absolute Truths at a booksale. And as I read, in quiet moments snatched before sleep, I discovered myself in the novel. I was the wife of the bishop, a woman spiritually drained, exhausted by the demands of parenthood

Absolute Truths
By Susan Howatch
Fawcett Crest, 1994
624 pp.; $6.50, paper

The Art of Prayer: A Simple Guide
By Timothy Jones
Ballantine Books, 1997
256 pp.; $11, paper

Prayer in the Unseen Warfare
By Jack N. Sparks
Conciliar Press, 1996
142 pp.; $9.95, paper

Dimensions of Prayer: Cultivating a Relationship with God
By Douglas V. Steere
Upper Room Books, 1997
128 pp.; $13.95, hardcover

Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness
By Nan C. Merrill
Continuum Books, 1997
311 pp.; $16.95, paper
The Book of Daily Prayer, 1998
Edited by Kim Sadler
United Church Press, 1997
384 pp.; $12.95, paper

The Book of Uncommon Prayer
Edited by Daniel and Constance Pollock
Word, 1996
198 pp.; $16.99, hardcover

So Amazing, So Divine
By Isaac Watts
Paraclete Press, 1997
204 pp.; $10.95, paper

Children and Prayer: A Shared Pilgrimage
By Betty Shannon Cloyd
Upper Room Books, 1997
165 pp.; $11.95, paper

Whole Prayer: Speaking and Listening to God
By Walter Wangerin
Zondervan, 1997
208 pp.; $16.99, hardcover

and a clerical marriage. Facing complicated relationships, difficult church duties, and a parish seething with power plays, the bishop's wife starts a spiritual journal. "I made the decision," she writes, "to get up early so that I can do my praying … but as far as I can see there have been no positive results and I'm getting discouraged."

I sympathized; and as I read on, I recognized another impulse. "I'm just wondering," the bishop's wife muses, "if I should drop into the SPCK bookshop and invest in a tome on prayer."

Pray better, intercede more effectively, ask with more power, praise with greater consistency, hear God's voice more distinctly. A search at Amazon.com yields 92 recently published books on how to pray. Buying a book seems to be a universal reaction to trouble in the prayer closet.

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Many of those 92 books are about prayer as an independent spiritual "technique" that can "center" any life. But writers who ground the experience of prayer in Christian theology are equally prolific. And within certain parameters—a biblical picture of God, a confession of Christ as the only Way, an acceptance of our basic sinfulness—these Christian books on prayer seem almost interchangeable.

Take, for example, three recently published volumes, widely divided by time and tradition: Jack Sparks's Prayer in the Unseen Warfare; Douglas Steere's 1962 Dimensions of Prayer, newly issued in a revised version; and Timothy Jones's The Art of Prayer: A Simple Guide. Jones (evangelical that he is) speaks of prayer as conversation: "While God is awe-inspiring and almighty, prayer can still take on the qualities of daily conversation. We can converse as with a friend, with a lack of self-consciousness." Steere, a Friends adherent, approaches prayer in all its facets as an ongoing exercise in "coming into God's presence." And for Father Sparks, whose book is an adaptation of a sixteenth-century Eastern Orthodox text, prayer is the ruling discipline of the Christian life, a powerful act that "makes us masters of ourselves, conquerors of the devil, and children of God."

Each book reassures the timid believer: "Prayer is for nonexperts," writes Jones. "We learn to pray," Sparks confirms, " … by beginning to pray." "In learning to pray," Steere promises, " … the only really fatal failure is to stop praying and not to begin again."

And each book breaks prayer into its component parts. "Let us combine in our prayer the four actions Saint Basil the Great describes," begins Sparks, "first, glorify God; then give thanks to Him for the mercies He has shown us; confess our sins and transgressions of His commandments; and finally, ask Him to grant what we need—particularly in regard to our salvation." Jones confirms these elements, although he quotes Charles Colson instead of Saint Basil; Steere covers each stage in turn.

What about the practicalities of prayer? Steere writes, "It helps to have a posture, whether kneeling or standing or sitting or prostrate. … It helps to read briefly in the Bible or in some devotional classic as a warm-up." Jones recommends getting up early, scheduling regular times of prayer, and absorbing the insights of spiritual writers. Sparks is the most technique-centered of the three, fencing the mysticism of spiritual combat with disciplines and caution. We bring ourselves in the presence of God, he writes, "step by step," and he lays out the steps in a neatly bulleted list.

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Still having trouble? All three books tell us what to do when our minds wander and our prayers seem to go nowhere. Don't worry about how prayer "feels," Jones writes. Instead, "trust that below and behind our scattered processes a great unseen work is still being done."

"You must struggle," Sparks writes, "and will find yourself in a continuing struggle. … Having once begun, we must patiently maintain the life of prayer." Steere agrees: "The feeling of dryness in prayer is so common and so universal that it must not be permitted to make us run for cover." He also suggests incorporating outer distractions into prayer ("O God, may my soul reach out for you with the swiftness of that whining jet that has just hurtled past"), an enterprise that I personally would find more distracting than the jet itself.

These are, in short, excellent guides to prayer—but reading them did very little to improve my prayer life. I took comfort once more in the bishop's wife. "Well," she writes in her journal, "I suppose anyone can make a mistake . …I did buy the book on prayer, but I couldn't get on with it. This was a real disappointment because for some reason I was convinced that buying the book on prayer would lead to a big break-through."

I had 15 books on prayer stacked by my bed, but a breakthrough wasn't looming on my horizon either. And when I confessed my difficulties to a wise older woman at church, she said at once, "Oh, I have such a hard time with prayer. My words don't seem to reflect what's in my heart. I have ten books about prayer on my shelf, but none of them have done much to help."

The plethora of books on prayer suggests to me not only that we buy books because we find prayer difficult but also that the books are ultimately unsatisfying: Better technique doesn't necessarily make for better prayer.

Sparks, Jones, and Steere certainly make no such claims. All three are orthodox, after all; and none falls into the trap of treating God as the great Power Source in the sky. Jones writes, "We do not tame or manipulate God by any practice or discipline." Sparks carefully sets prayer within the context of a whole life devoted to God; Prayer in the Unseen Warfare deals with tithing, fasting, almsgiving, corporate worship, and the Eucharist as integral to the healthy prayer life.

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Yet these books are undoubtedly pitched to an audience accustomed to solving its problems with the help of how-to books, an evangelical public that has already bought Seven Steps to Financial Success, Seven Steps to Revitalizing the Small-Town Church, and Seven Steps to Salvation. Jones tells us that prayer should not be approached as a project to be mastered, but his publisher has divided his book into three how-to sections: How We Approach God, What We Say, How We Keep Going. Prayer in the Unseen Warfare is loaded with such headings as "Steps to Success" (eight numbered paragraphs follow), and each chapter concludes with study questions ("Of what value do you find the five steps suggested early in this chapter?").

I'm not casting stones; I recognize this tendency in myself. I buy how-to books on eating better, on writing, on parenting, on exercise. And I can measure the success of my purchases: lower numbers on the bathroom scale, fewer editorial rejection slips, a day without sibling rivalry, a mile run in seven minutes. But how do I know when my book on prayer has yielded success?

Jones, Steere, and Sparks all promise me that God always answers, and each writer gives me a different paradigm for hearing him. Jones, the conversationalist, says that God carries on his side of the dialogue as life unfolds: "Daily events (and nonevents) are a kind of alphabet through which God communicates." He gives us an example; on an airplane, headed to see his critically ill father, he prayed that his father would not die until he was able to say goodbye. The prayer was not answered as he had hoped, but Jones concludes that God answered in another way: "While I certainly shed tears, while I regretted missing seeing my father one last time, God answered me with his presence. He held me during a dark time."

But how do I read my own alphabet? If I don't feel those arms around me, have I still heard God's voice? Steere suggests that we have heard God when we find our hearts changing. From his perspective, prayer is not a conversation but an examination of the self in the presence of God's Light. "Hold up your desires before a God of love … " he writes, "and it is amazing the sorting over, the sifting power that takes place there—if you stay on your knees." Steere never questions God's power or treats him as impersonal; yet he devotes his attention to the attitudes prayer develops in us rather than to the voice of God in answer.

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Sparks assures us that if we are diligent in prayer and continue it for some time, we will hear God's voice: "The soul so prepared experiences communion with the Lord and is aware of it—unless the Lord deems it better, for the good of that soul, to prolong its thirst and hunger for Him before satisfying it." But this is as unsatisfying to the seeker as a conversation without reply. If I am finding my hunger prolonged, how long do I persist before I decide that my technique is at fault?

These books, good as they are, feel a bit like going through marriage counseling by correspondence course. After all, most of us struggle to hear God in the same way that we learn what a spouse is really saying: through nonverbal clues, expressions, deeds, shrugs of the shoulder, small gifts or stony silences. A couple that has never seen a good marriage modeled before their eyes will be at a loss, unfamiliar with normal nonverbal communication, oblivious to each other's messages. A book on marriage may help, but ultimately an experienced counselor must provide personal instruction in the skills of communication.

The bishop's wife, musing over her book purchase, writes, "I should … stop being too proud to seek advice on prayer. … The trouble is that I'm such a Protestant at heart that I don't like people giving me orders or advice on my spiritual life and getting between me and God. The very phrase 'spiritual director' makes me recoil."

We buy books, in part, because of our reluctance to take prayer out of the closet: Most of us don't have (and wouldn't welcome) the interference of a spiritual director—an experienced Christian who helps us to pray and lends a hand in interpreting the answers.

The theory of prayer is, in fact, immensely simple. Tell God your needs, thank him for his gifts, cry out to him in sorrow, praise him for his greatness, listen for his answers. The difficulty lies in putting this simplicity into practice in each difficult and complex life. Here, books will always fail us. All they can do is tell stories of other spiritual experiences, and these may sound trite or heretical when enshrined in print. Jones tells the story of a friend who interpreted a dream about actor John Goodman as God's voice, telling her that one day she would find a husband. How do I then interpret my dream, last night, that I had lost my child and could not find him?

Father Sparks, unhampered by the Protestant tendency to hide in the prayer closet, doesn't mince words in his introduction to Prayer in the Spiritual Warfare:

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The book you are holding contains essential information for all Christians. Its use, however, requires a context: the Church and Orthodox spiritual guidance. No one should undertake to follow all that is said here without guidance. Everyone needs a spiritual father or guide.

This warning is especially strong when Sparks discusses such mystic undertakings as meditation on a single phrase. "You need a counselor," he writes, "[but not] merely an associate, a friend of the same mind, with whom you can talk. Now you need an experienced spiritual father to verify all that occurs when you use the Jesus Prayer." Such a spiritual father might suggest that a dream of John Goodman represents, not God's voice, but a subconscious still mulling over last night's HBO offerings.

Alas, spiritual directors, as another Susan Howatch character observes, are not as easy to acquire as sacks of potatoes. In their inevitable absence, we have books. But books too can give us the key to escape the lonely isolation of the prayer closet. Steere, Sparks, and Jones all recommend the use of model prayers. Jones quotes Eugene Peterson: using the prayers of others connects us with the "experience of generations." In the ancient prayers of the church, Sparks writes, are revealed the "hearts of saintly men and women. … Therefore: get yourself a prayer book."

These books, good as they are, feel
a bit like going through marriage
counseling by correspondence course.

My stack of books on prayer contains a number of modern prayer books, but most show a distressing tendency to flabby ecumenicism. Nan C. Merrill's Psalms for Praying fixes up the Hebrew poems, which (as she writes in her foreword) "often reflect a patriarchal society based on fear and guilt that projects evil and sin onto outer enemies." Naughty King David. Merrill's solution is to remove God from the Psalms, replacing him with a nonspecific spiritual force ("Love is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"). The United Church Press's Book of Daily Prayer, a daily guide to morning and evening prayer, is too often trendy ("You are an Equal Opportunity Parent! Help me always to remember this essential fact") and addresses God, variously, as "my Mother, my Father," "Grandmother, Grandfather" and "O, Great Spirit, who connects me with all things." The Book of Uncommon Prayer, edited by Constance and Daniel Pollock, is slightly better, culling devotional passages from great writers and assembling them into a handy hardback volume. Thomas More, John Donne, Jane Austen, and Feodor Dostoyevsky make helpful appearances (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato, and Walt Whitman make unhelpful ones). But there's a gap here, perhaps reflecting our twentieth-century preference for isolation: where are good, orthodox modern prayers to be found?

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The best source for model prayers remains the Book of Common Prayer, perhaps supplemented by Isaac Watts's So Amazing, So Divine, one of a series of spiritual classics reissued by Paraclete Press. But prayer-seekers who have difficulty with archaic language will have to make do with the brief modern prayers provided by Timothy Jones at the ends of his chapters.

A different type of prayer-closet key is provided by Betty Shannon Cloyd's Children and Prayer: A Shared Pilgrimage. Jones tells us that his impulse to write about prayer comes partly from frustration: his parents prayed, but they never talked to him about how to pray; and he progressed through a religious education without much input. "I was largely on my own when it came to the actual encounter of my soul with God," he confesses. I find myself in this same situation. Cloyd is a bit too sanguine about the natural insight and holiness of children, but her book is invaluable to the parent who wants to avoid repeating this mistake from generation to generation. She suggests different ways to involve children in prayer, models for praying in front of your children, and even projects that bring the act of prayer down to the concrete thought level of a four-year-old.

One book on prayer for adults stands out among all those on my shelf: Walter Wangerin's Whole Prayer. Wangerin has not attempted to write a guide to prayer. Rather, he seems to be giving us a glimpse into his own life of prayer. The book is as much spiritual memoir as spiritual advice. When he comes to the vexed question of hearing God, Wangerin doesn't indulge in abstractions: instead, he tells us how he reads the alphabet. God speaks through "all the elements of creation and all the details of human experience … through the words of people … through the Church." But to know what the voice of God is saying, we must use Scripture:

So you think that a moment of ineffable joy was divine communication to you. How can you be sure? Find another such moment of similar detail and shape and purpose in the Bible. … What does the Bible say about its moment? … How does it relate to the Creator? The Redeemer? The Holy Spirit? … Be sure that your interpretation of the event which happened to you does not contradict the teachings … in the whole of the Bible.
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Wangerin admonishes us, "How important it is to have studied God's dictionary in order to discriminate with clarity the words of God uttered in your own life." He then tells us, over and over, how this happened for him: of the time he finally understood what it means to pray simply; of a night when he was lost on a dark lake, unable to see the shore, and heard the voice of a friend: God's answer to his prayer, O Lord, hear my voice! All of Wangerin's how-tos are placed, not in the sterile room of technical skill, but in the crowded and always-changing corridors of daily life. They cease to become how-tos and become life itself. And perhaps the strongest list of how-tos does not have to do directly with prayer itself, but with what Wangerin calls "the pieties": "private, pious disciplines that train us in behavior and lifestyle to hear the still, small voice of the Lord." Give alms, he writes; fast, worship, and pray. And find partners in prayer: those who can help you to understand your needs, examine your soul, and hear the voice of God.

I am still searching for a partner in prayer. In the meantime, I am finding Wangerin's book a reasonable substitute. Whole Prayer finally impelled me to come back to my knees, to rise every morning and follow a form of prayer, to wait for God to infuse his presence into my faithful words. I am praying for a spiritual director, a wise and mature companion in prayer. When God provides one, I will know that I have heard his voice.

Susan Wise Bauer teaches literature at the College of William and Mary. She is the author of The Revolt (Word), a novel; her second novel, Though the Darkness Hide Thee, is forthcoming from Multnomah.

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