Today I want to introduce you to Anne Lamott, a quirky, cranky, funny, endearing writer of seven popular novels, one beloved book on how to write, two hair-raising memoirs, and eight – so far – books on faith. Her quirky, cranky, funny books on her Christianity have endeared her to many atheists, maybe some of you.
Even after her born-again conversion, she said, “I had no big theological thoughts but had discovered that if I said, Hello? to God, I could feel God say, Hello, back. It was like being in a relationship with Casper. Sometimes I wadded up a Kleenex and held it tightly in one fist so that it felt like I was walking hand and hand with him.” That was how she prayed.
Her many books on faith – there’s a new one coming out in October – are like a cottage industry, but I’m going to focus on just one, called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. By the end of my talk, I’m hoping you might have some ideas for your own prayers, no matter how non-religious.
First, some background on Ms. Lamott. I first encountered her through her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I found her advice funny, surprising, and helpful. She understood deep in her bones what it’s like to face a blank page as the ideas that were jumping up and down in your mind just minutes before they evaporate like so much steam. Her instructions for overcoming writer’s block included “writing crappy first drafts,” only that’s not the word she used. She suggested viewing your writing through a one-inch frame, which only lets a few words in at a time, to tamp down your fear of the blank page. And she told a story about her brother, age 10, sitting paralyzed at the kitchen table facing a school paper about birds he’d put off for three months and due the next day. She wrote, “Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” Good advice.
Her writing is full of good stories like this: heartwarming, helpful, wry. So in 1995, when I had been a single mother for over ten years, I picked up her best-selling memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Here was a mother who did not have it all figured out. Here was a woman who had clawed her way back from drug addiction, alcoholism, bulimia, dreadful relationships, and generalized, all-around self-sabotage, to become healthy and successful, and to raise a happy child with no help at all from his father, a married man.
This is also the book where I first noticed how much she wrote about God, and church, and faith, and, especially, Jesus. Jesus seemed to be her best friend and nanny, an actual physical presence in her life bringing comfort and practical advice. Normally, I would put down a book so packed with religion, but as she would be the first to tell you, Lamott is not a normal born-again Jesus freak. She lives by impertinent bumper-sticker sayings like, “God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay like this.” That’s a divine presence many of the fallen find comforting.
Although she mentioned her church, a ramshackle, mostly African-African Presbyterian congregation, in Bird by Bird, I remembered nothing about it until I read Operating Instructions. A Kindle search reveals that, in this memoir, she talks not only about her newborn son, but also about faith (a word she used 17 times), church (26 times), and Christianity (71 times). She mentions God a whopping 93 times, but that includes swearing, like when the cat and her son throw up on the sofa simultaneously (“Oh God, not again.”).
Anne Lamott was born in 1954 in San Francisco, to hard-core liberal parents who thought Christians were insane. As she explains, “My father’s folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians ‘God’s frozen people.’ My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God – it was like we’d all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father.”
She describes her conversion in the book she wrote next, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. It happened in college, as a philosophy professor examined a familiar Old Testament story. Hearing the account of God demanding Abraham demonstrate his devotion by slitting his son Isaac’s throat, and only letting him off the hook when he actually picks up the knife, Lamott crossed over and became a believer. She admits, “It made no sense that what brought me to this conviction [was this horrifying story.] I don’t know how else to put it or how and why I actively made, if not exactly a leap of faith, a lurch of faith.” Her Jewish college friends were thrilled, and threw her a hilarious but sweet bat mitzva, with one playing the rabbi and others playing the weeping aunties.
By then, Lamott had discovered her church. Every Sunday on her way to the flea market, she heard glorious singing as she walked by the little building. She knew a lot of the hymns from her grandparents, and her parents’ albums of spirituals (which they bought for purely cultural purposes). She would hang around the door to listen, and then started singing along, way in the back. She said, “It was the singing that pulled me in and split me open, but [during the time when people hugged and greeted each other,] if they tried to hug me, I was as frozen and stiff as Richard Nixon.” She left when things got too Christian. She said, “To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing.”
Years later, her faith became, in her words, “Jesusy.” Strung out on drugs and booze, a week after an abortion, two years before sobriety, she felt his literal presence in her bedroom. She fought against what she was feeling. She said, “The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.
“And,” she admits, “I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, ‘I would rather die.’” But every day after that, she kept sensing Jesus, in her words, “like a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.”
Days later, she did. She let Jesus into her life. At church, she began sitting through the sermon, much more interested in the Jesus talk, especially his radical message of peace and equality. She said, “I had no big theological thoughts but had discovered that if I talked to God, or Jesus, he was listening.” Within a year, she was sober. Another year on, she was baptized, and when she became pregnant two years later, her friends and also her church family promised they would provide for her every step of the way.
Anne Lamott felt something must be out there from an early age. As a child in an anti-religious household, she kept her prayers secret. She said, “I bowed my head in bed and prayed because I believed – not in Jesus – but in someone listening, someone who heard.” At the pretend bat mitzva her college friends staged in her dorm room, the roommate playing her rabbi chose a prayer her mother taught her, explaining, “Maybe most of us aren’t religious anymore, but we are an ethical people.” Here’s the prayer:
“Help for the sick and hungry,
home for the homeless folk,
peace in the world forever,
this is my prayer, O Lord. Amen.”
One big difference between Lamott and too many professed Christians is that it’s still okay with her if we want to stick with not-quite-religious prayers about ethics. She’s also a universalist, a big no-no for both Protestants and Catholics. She believes – she knows – we are all going to heaven.
She prayed, despite her upbringing. She recalls, “I was raised to believe that people who prayed were ignorant. It was voodoo, asking an invisible old man to intervene, God as Santa Claus.” Now she says, “Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness. We can pray, ‘Hello? Is there anyone there?’ We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.” She asks nonbelievers – like me, and maybe you – to take a chance that there might be a higher power to whom we could say, “Hey.”
What to say after that, she says, will fall into three categories (and now we get to the cards):
First, “Help.” As in: Don’t let my cat die.
Lamott acknowledges that God won’t, or can’t, change things to our liking just because we ask. She admits that first she asks God to let her cat live forever. Then she asks that the cat not die in pain. Finally, she asks for help accepting her cat’s death, and also help explaining it to her young son. She says, “Was my prayer answered?” when I said, “Don’t let me cat die?” “Yes,” she says, “although I didn’t get what I’d hoped and prayed for, what I’d selected from the menu.”
Someone less inclined to pray – me, for instance, and maybe you – would say that by praying, she realized she could not expect eternal life for a pet, but by putting her mind to it, and fashioning her emotions into thoughtful words, she was able to accept that. All this focus on her dying cat and her own helplessness also probably helped her to know how she could help her son with his own grief. So maybe when we pray, we are really talking to ourselves, our best selves, or, to use a nice phrase, our better angels. We seek help from the heavens and come back with strength from deep within ourselves. I think it’s the same thing.
The second kind of prayer Lamott describes is “Thanks.” “Thanks for letting my cat go quietly, thanks for helping me explain life and death to my son. Thanks for helping me grieve.
She says, “Gratitude runs the gamut from shaking your head and saying, ‘Thanks, I appreciate it so much,’ for your continued health, or a good day at work, or the first blooms of the daisies in the park, to saying, ‘Thanks, that’s a relief’ when it’s not the transmission, or an abscess, or an urgent notice from the IRS. ‘Thanks’ can be the recognition that you have been blessed mildly, or with a feeling as intense as despair at the miracle of having been spared. You say (4) Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou: My wife is going to live. We get to stay in this house. They found my son: he’s in jail, but he’s alive; we know where he is and he’s safe for the night.”
“Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior,” she says. That makes sense. It’s a good thing to be grateful, I think, although I don’t believe we have to address our thanks to any supernatural being.
Finally, we get to the third essential prayer: “Wow.” One caveat: both wonderful and terrible things can evoke this response. Lamott recounts how, when her son, Sam, was six or so, he explained to her why we call God “God.” He said, “Because when you see something so great, you just go, ‘God!’” He was too young to know that when confront with the utter destruction of a forest fire, or the absolute evil of the Holocaust, we may also be so stunned we can only say, “God.” This is the darkest kind of “wow,” which puts the “awful” into “awe.” This kind of “wow” can be a prayer for help.
Lamott explains that a prayer of “wow” for good things may sound like “Thanks,” as it may be our way of expressing wonder over good fortune.
She goes on, “Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. She warns, “If you say, ‘Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,’ you are in trouble. At that point, you have to ask yourself why you are even here. And if I were you, I would pray, ‘Help.’ Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”
This is the way my shaman, James, says it: “WOW.”
Or, I would say, it’s good to step outside of yourself and appreciate the big, amazing things, like the rescue of thirteen soccer players in Thailand, as well as the small, amazing things, like the perfection of a single peony bloom. Whether you think you must address this “Wow!” to anyone or anything in particular is up to you, and is, I think, largely irrelevant. I feel good sharing my wows with anyone around me, like the time I spotted an incredible view of the Hale-Bopp comet from the Kennedy Mall parking lot, and was thrilled to see a math professor from Loras to whom I could call out, “Don! Look at the comet!” Don Marxen wasn’t God, but I’ll bet Anne Lamott would disagree.
So good ahead and pray, if it feels good. This is me, not Anne Lamott, suggesting you try it. Ask the universe for help, and you might find it easier to think through your latest dilemma. Tell the universe thank you, and you should feel less in charge of everything, and more open to assistance, no matter how it arrives. Say “WOW,” whether aloud or in your heart, when something terrific knocks your socks off, because it will give you even more joy, and something to say when words fail you.