Edited by Sarah Bessey. Convergent Books, 2021. 176 pages. $20/hardcover; $11.99/eBook.
A reader who opens this book expecting yet another selection of comforting prayers for various occasions is in for something of a shock. The idea of “prayer” here has undergone a lively expansion into sometimes disquieting realms. Bessey intends A Rhythm to indicate her resolve to explore the totality of the ways we can pray for all the rhythms of our lives. Vivid memories of traditional prayer circles led to an urge to recreate that space. But since the old pathways of prayer were too limited (the word “timid” occurred to me), that space had to be re-engaged in a far more robust way: to “fling wide the doors to prayer.” This book is the result.
Bessey assembled material from some two dozen women, many of them religious leaders, and from their work developed three parts, loosely grouped into the categories “Orientation,” “Disorientation,” and “Reorientation.” They cover a wide variety of experiences—some traumatic—that life brings. The contributions are meditations of two different types: one is prayers, and the other consists of thoughts and comments about prayers and how they arise out of life. Many of them—including several by Bessey—are personal experiences: reminiscences of family prayer, the basics of prayer, words of encouragement, instructions for centering, all variations of the foundational idea of full-bodied prayer involving all five senses. One of the contributors writes, “guidance and wisdom are rooted in our bodies . . . Tapping into this guidance is a form of prayer.”
A few samples will illustrate the variety. Some get into an almost hypnotizing rhythm, like this excerpt from spoken word poet Amena Brown:
She said, “How do you know when you are hearing from God?” . . . I wanted to say / Put your hand in the middle of your chest / Feel the rhythm there . . . God / Whatever you want to say / I’m here / I’m listening
The spirituality of a prayer need not stand in the way of humor. Mindful preparation of chicken soup can be a prayer, as demonstrated by pastor Osheta Moore in “Reconciliation Soup”:
DICE ONIONS: Jesus, help me embrace the tears. . . . CHOP CELERY: . . . Lord, my anger feels like celery. . . . ADD NOODLES: Lord, let us remember that we are intertwined. . . . BRING TO BOIL: Let us submit to the heat of your call to unity.
A few of the prayers have the ring of a psalm-like plea. From Rev. Sandra Maria Van Opstal: “How long, Lord? / How long must we cry out? / How long must the vulnerable sit silent as bombs, guns, cages, natural disasters threaten lives?”
“A Prayer for America” by Lisa Sharon Harper is a blunt plea for justice:
Holy Holy Holy God, / We call her America for short. / When we speak her whole name, it fills the earth and edges you out. / Her name is United. / It is Stately. / It is Empire. / It is White.
Laura Jean Truman’s “A Prayer for the Tired, Angry Ones” is an anguished plea for strength:
God, / We’re so tired. / We want to do justice, but the work feels endless . . . / We want to love mercy, but our enemies are relentless . . . / Jesus, in this never-ending wilderness, come to us and grant us grace.
And there’s a cry for understanding from the depths in “For All the So-Called Lost” by Rev. Emmy Kegler:
Jesus, I am lost. / They told me to follow you / and I did— / . . . Jesus, / for every sheep and coin and child / called Lost, / may you pull us close and whisper, / “Found.”
Chanequa Walker-Barnes’s “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” is a deliberately focused echo of the anger of some of the psalms, an anguished prophetic voice attempting to confront White readers with how, in unacknowledged ways, they perpetuate racism. Its unsparing bluntness has offended some readers, generating considerable controversy.
Other pieces are guided meditations, prayers based on the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, a liturgy of call and communal response, a prayer on prayer: “Dear God, I don’t know how to begin my prayers anymore,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor.
Bessey even includes a blank page: “A Prayer for Those Who Cannot Pray with Words,” and concludes with a benediction. Interspersed throughout are Bible quotes—most of them from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message—and quotations from well-known sources having to do with prayer.
What all these prayers have in common is their uninhibited spiritual genuineness, drawn from personally lived experience. They are cries from the heart, and they explore the full breadth of the emotional landscape. On reaching the conclusion of this selection, the reader will feel that Bessey has kept the promise she made at the beginning. The doors have indeed been opened wide.
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting.