Michael Plekon, Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience
Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2016.
I grew up in a tradition that emphasized the need for impromptu prayers “from the heart.” That’s a nice way of putting it. The only prayer that counted was closing your eyes and talking to God with the predictable bookend formula “Dear God…in Jesus’s name, amen.” That’s what we meant. This made it particularly difficult to make sense of the phrase, “pray always/pray continuously” (1 Thess. 5:16). Our ship ran aground on a phrase like that. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of pouring one’s heart out to God, but to also think of prayer beyond the one-sided reverent conversation I send out from my head and ‘heart’ into oblivion. Michael Plekon’s book Uncommon Prayer seeks to make sense of prayer beyond the explicit traditional forms we are accustomed to in private or done in public worship.
I’ve always enjoyed reading what Michael Plekon writes. Earlier, I reviewed book of his called Hidden Holiness which is worth checking out. It seems to me that the common theme that runs throughout his books is to ground the romantic notions of faith, and present ideas like ‘holiness’ ‘sainthood’ and ‘prayer’ in the ordinary way in which they lived and experienced even by the best of us. Uncommon Prayer follows that theme by looking at prayer from a wide array of different perspectives from theologians, poets, preachers, and even his own pastoral experience as something that extends beyond formal addresses to God.
The book is really a mosaic of persons and places and actions that help us to think about how prayer is something that we live, not just something done at particular moments. The logic of the book is that prayer done in its formal and traditional manner begins to infiltrate our lives and embody what is done in ordinary lived experience. So things like education, recalling a person and their needs, and even a church community coming together to make pierogi for a bake sale can become manifestations of prayer. Without jettisoning the need for quieting our souls in private and public worship, conversing with God with and without words, Plekon reminds us that prayer constitutes the daily activities of our lives as we live them out oriented to God.
One powerful image Plekon employs is an old tattered prayer card littered with names of people who he has pledged to pray for over the years. The card is not just a register of prayers successful and unsuccessful, but of our own inherent interconnectedness with one another through God. Prayer becomes a means of seeing ourselves as part of one another, and as a part of a history of people; a tradition that remains alive and united through prayer.
In another vein, I think this book is an innovative way to think about hagiography. Hagiography is an older genre of recording the lives of saints, telling about all the amazing miracles they performed and generally making their lives out to be more than they necessarily were. Plekon here explodes that genre first by focusing on a number of persons rather than just one. Instead of an individual saint, we have a community of saints all teaching us a similar lesson about prayer. He continually recalls figures he wrote about or will write about in future chapters as partners in this project of uncommon prayer. We hear about the lives of saints and what they taught about prayer, but we hear about them as a mosaic, or perhaps a chorus of voices all singing different parts but in harmony with one another about the life lived as prayer. He explodes the genre a second way by not romanticizing the lives of these figures. Prayer becomes an expression of flawed, imperfect humanity striving to live in and through this imperfection toward God.
All the best approaches to prayer likewise tell us that prayer cannot be just the sound of our own consciousness, the stream of our insecurities, hurts, joys, and plans. Prayer is of necessity about ourselves sand about the important other people in our lives. But prayer is more. (7)
Prayer is remembering. Prayer constantly shows me that I am never alone, always part of a community, a communion of saints in the church and in my life. I am reminded to think about their situations and needs, not just my own. I am also shown that, while time with them may have passed, we all live in an eternal now, with God. (111)
The experience of connection, of communion with God and each other is what we have been listening to throughout. God is not up or out there but here, in and with us. Our prayer is more than words: it is our lives. We incarnate God over and over again. We become what we pray. (253)