3.17.2015

Finding God in the Verbs, by Jennie Isbell and Brent Bill

This book was much different than the sort of books I usually read on religion. I like to read rather academic work on theology and/or the history of religion; spiritual memoirs; and spiritual or devotional classics.

I'd probably call this a modern devotional. I wanted to read it partially because these are My People. I know Brent very slightly; we met once at a big Quaker conference . . . in the bookstore, of course! I've never met Jennie, but we travel in the same circles. I am sure we must have at least one mutual friend.

Mostly, though, I wanted to read this because the book uses the sort of technique I'm used to from reading and writing poetry to analyze what's going on when I pray — and suggest improvements.

This book didn't end up speaking to me, but it was still a good book.

Poetry and faith are very close to the same thing in my mind. I use the same approaches to each. I understand my faith as, more or less, an enormous sort of poem that interprets the world for me. The part of my brain that analyzes a poem is the same part of my brain that analyzes theology. So applying techniques usually used in a writing seminar to prayer? Right up my street.

The problem, I realized about halfway through this book, is that I don't use words when I pray. At all. I just . . . am not a prayer-in-words, and I feel no compulsion to be. I am fond of “centering prayer," which is the Western version of mindfulness meditation (and almost as old), but even my intercessory prayer is a wordless directing of the attention, not at all a verbal thing.

(In secular terms, if I am praying for someone, I am sitting there holding my love and care and worry or sometimes frustrations with and for that person foremost in my mind. Which is why intercessory prayer “works" for me, even leaving God out of it, because when I do this for a person nine times out of ten I come to some insight about how I can be a better friend to them, and always, always I am then able to be kinder to them when I see them in person. This is especially useful for people I don't get along with very well. So anyway, I pray a lot for people and it works really well, even without any reference to God.)

The authors talk about “resistance" to various spiritual practices towards the end of the book. In their terms, a “charged" resistance is when there is something emotional going on under the surface preventing you from doing something that you really might want or need to do. Then there is “uncharged" resistance, which is when you don't want to do something 'cuz you just don't wanna. Maybe it doesn't work for you; maybe it's fine but it's not a priority; something like that. But there's not an emotional block.

At any rate, I realized by the end of the book that I have an uncharged but pretty strong resistance to using words when I pray. It just isn't my jam. I can do it. but it is not so satisfying for me.

So in the end, sadly, the book itself was not for me — but that was entirely because of my whole not-praying-with-words thing and had nothing at all to do with the quality of the book, which really was excellent. I am strongly in favor of anything that combines writing and faith! They go together like a hand in a glove so far as I'm concerned, and this was such a clever and insightful way of doing it.

I'd recommend this book heartily for anyone who does pray with words and would like to use the techniques of a writing workshop to improve their prayer life. I think you'd get a lot out of it.