cover image Prayer: A History

Prayer: A History

Carol Zaleski, Philip Zaleski, . . Houghton Mifflin, $28 (415pp) ISBN 978-0-618-15288-9

Subtitle notwithstanding, this ambitious volume is not exactly a history of prayer. It is rather an examination of how certain people and certain communities have practiced prayer. In the most satisfying section, the Zaleskis (both teach at Smith College; Philip Zaleski is the editor of the popular Best Spiritual Writing series) sketch four archetypes of prayer. There is the refugee, who clings to God with prayers of petition (the first example given of this type of prayer is the recently popular Jabez); the devotee (such as the Sufi who strives for unceasing prayer); the ecstatic, like Sri Ramakrishna or Teresa of Avila; and the contemplative, who "tastes ultimate reality," like Thérèse of Lisieux. The discussion of prayer's intersection with culture—the role of prayer in modern art, the place of prayer in civic spaces, and so forth—is not wholly successful, but each of the individual musings is interesting enough; indeed, some of the vignettes, such as abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi's reverence for the prayerful icon makers he watched as a child, are delightful. Although some chapters feel arbitrary and the book tends to meander, even the most astute student of prayer will be challenged, surprised or inspired by it. (Nov. 2)