011: Teach Us To Pray

hen my family gathers twice a year for reunions at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill (southwest of Lexington, Ky.), I like the fact that my children always know where to find me in the middle of the day. In an earlier ReadTheSpirit article, I described the simple and yet peacefully beautiful “meeting room” in the historic village’s Center Family House.
    Each time we visit the village, I spend at least an hour meditating in that place, because it is so different from the other places that I pray. I pray frequently in my family room, seated at my dinner table, in a pew at my church and those are locations of spiritual comfort for me. Perhaps that’s similar to your own checklist of sites for prayer?
    But I like to branch out and to remember that God is everywhere.
    So, I pray at the Shaker village and I have prayed in far-flung locations around the world: St. Peter’s at the Vatican, John Wesley’s church in London, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea and in a rice paddy in a remote rural area of Indonesia where I could hear a call to prayer echoing from a distant mosque.

     As we approach the weekend and sabbath prayers for billions of God’s peoples around the world, I’m recommending two unusual new guides to prayer. If you’re like me and feel inspired by new locations, perhaps a fresh guide to prayer might help as well, hmmm?

THE FIRST is a rich new book that I initially overlooked because of its rather narrowly themed title, “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women.” It turns out, upon exploring this little volume, that it’s really a marvelous collection, aimed at Jewish readers, but with sections that are broadly applicable to people of other faiths.

(And, as always, click on a book title or a book cover in our stories to jump to a short review in our Amazon-related bookstore. Anything you choose to buy on our site sends a small portion back to help support our work.)

    Dinah Berland, a poet herself, brought us this gift that she discovered among 19th-Century manuscripts.
    The story behind this collection speaks eloquently of the lack of serious respect for the spiritual works of women. Even today, search for Fanny Neuda in Wikipedia and the closest you’ll come is her husband, Rabbi Abraham Neuda, who led a congregation in a small town now situated in the Czech Republic. In her preface, Berland describes visiting the synagogue and sitting in the women’s gallery where Fanny once prayed, even though the small town — thanks to the horrors of 20th Century history — now has no Jewish residents.
    Her 30-page essay in which she attempts to reconstruct Fanny’s life is worth the price of the book. In fact, you’ll wish she had written more about this remarkable woman’s life.
    Some of the prayers may seem dated, but many are timeless. There’s also a maturity in these prayers, which proves the hard-earned wisdom of the woman who wrote them. One example is a lengthy prayer on the occasion of recovery from a serious crisis. It says, in part:

“All Compassionate One, you have given me life
“For the second time.
“Even though I don’t greet it now
“As I did the first time,
“With a child’s innocence and purity.
“Yet I hope that through my suffering
“I have been able to atone for some things.
“I hope I have been purified and cleansed.
“So I might begin my life anew.”

     The SECOND unusual sourcebook for prayer and meditation is called “Summon’s Compendium of Days,” and it’s not your typical devotional book with prayers printed out for you to read.
    The volume’s overall editor, Parminder Singh Summon, is something of a mystery man in the literary world. According to British press, he’s in his 40s, works from his modest home in Peterborough (a town north of London), raises money for charity (especially cancer research), belongs to a small evangelical congregation called the Nene Family Church (which Americans might call an “emergent church”) — and he cranks out books that read as though he also has suddenly surfaced from the 19th Century.
    Earlier, he published some small volumes of Bible and Christian trivia under titles that included the word, “Miscellany.” Now, Church Publishing Incorporated, which is the official publisher of worship materials for the Episcopal Church, has produced this odd-looking and absolutely delightful collection that he calls a “Compendium of Days.”

Before I explain how it works, consider his subtitle: “An Essential Digest of Daily History, Biography, Philosophy, Customs and Traditions, Curiosities of Human Nature, And Learned Discourse Designed to Inspire & Entertain.”

This is a BIG view of the spiritual world offered up as a daily reminder that God’s Creation is VAST and the eccentric corners of our world are absolutely amazing to consider for a moment each day.

    There’s a page of eclectic material that Summon has pieced together for every day throughout the year. There are religious holidays, births and deaths of notable people, quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible and Oscar Wilde among a host of classic sources. Then, on most days, there are articles, perhaps a summary of World Food Day or, on many days, a selection from the lives of spiritual heroes. Yes, there are canonized saints among the people you’ll meet, but you’ll also read about the Hollywood screenwriters who defied Senator Joe McCarthy and were repaid with the infamous Black List.

    Some of Summon’s spiritual connections here seem odd or even nonexistent — but you’ll find them in many surprising ways. I did.
    AND, I am not making up this next spiritual connection. A lifelong journalistic skeptic, I decided to test Summon’s claim that this truly was a “Compendium of Days” by flipping open the book to see if he had remembered to add a February 29 entry. And there on that page I found: Ann Lee.
    Lee is the founder of the Shaker movement and, for February 29, perhaps because that is an eccentric date and the Shakers were an eccentric Christian movement, Summon offers a brief biography of her life plus an inspirational reading from Lee herself. The text contains the famous line, “I put my hands to work and my heart to God.”

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, the blessing we send out to all of our readers is this:
    So may we all affirm: In these challenging times, may we put our hands to work and our hearts to God.
    Come Back Next Week for stories including A Conversation With MARCUS BORG, a fascinating talk with the Bible scholar that looks ahead to themes Christians will want to explore in the Christmas season.
    PLUS, we’ve got our first salute to the many MURDER-MYSTERY-LOVERS among people of faith.
    AND, we’ll have MORE SPIRITUAL MOVIES, nominated by our readers after a popular article on Monday about faith and film. Hold your breath (or bite your nails, depending on personal preference) for that one!

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