What do the Jewish blessing over cheese, the Islamic dhikr and the Japanese tea ceremony have in common? In each, the human meets the divine in prayer.
The Zaleskis, who have individually and jointly edited several anthologies with spiritual themes (The Book of Heaven, 2000, etc.), begin this rich study by examining the “prehistory” of prayer. They suggest that its origins lie somewhere in human impulses toward magic and sacrifice. Most prayer, they find, falls into four categories: petitionary, liturgical, ecstatic or contemplative. Because they believe it’s impossible to understand prayer if you discuss it “in the abstract . . . as a generic category,” the authors feature a “portrait gallery” of expert pray-ers, from Teresa of Avila to AA founder Bill W., and examine prayer’s place in pop culture and politics. The chapter on “Prayer and the Public Square” is especially relevant in our current political clime. Americans, write the authors, are unsure when, if ever, it’s legitimate to pray in public; though our feelings about it may be reshaped by forces as divergent as international migration and the Internet, our ambivalence about, say, prayer in school, is likely to continue. Throughout, the authors are careful to offer a cross-cultural survey: Along with Christian prayer there is discussion of Hasidic prayer, Islamic salat and even Buddhist haiku. But their eagerness to be all-encompassing can feel forced. Emphasizing commonalities and almost never remarking on the differences among traditions results in a certain superficiality.
The Zaleskis may have bitten off more than they can chew. Still, at their best, they rival Karen Armstrong in their lucid prose and expansive vision.