Kate Braestrup's "Beginner's Grace"
August 12, 2011
If I weren't worried about seeming unprofessional, I would begin this book review by saying, "Dear Kate Braestrup: I love you."
That's a little bit extreme, I'll grant you. But it really is my first response to reading Kate's latest, Beginner's Grace. And this response first welled up in me on page 8, at the very beginning of the book, when I read this:
I had thought that conquering the monkey mind and bringing myself into a conscious attentiveness were prerequisites for prayer, but they are not: they are prayer's result. If I was restless, dubious, and distracted whenever I'd try to pray, so what? Everyone is!
I promptly copied out the quote, emailed it to a dear friend, and resolved to bring it to the Friday morning meditation group I lead at my synagogue. Not surprisingly, Kate has hit the proverbial nail right on the head. So many of us imagine that we need to be serene and conscious before we can attempt to meditate or pray, but the exact opposite is true. The practice comes first; if we're lucky, the change in us unfolds later.
What keeps you from prayer?
Ask that question in a roomful of people who don't pray, and you will get a raft of answers: Oh, I'm too busy. I'm uncomfortable. All the people I know who pray are real jerks, and I don't want to be one of them. I have bad memories of abusive religious figures. I wouldn't know who I was praying to. I don't know what to say.
...This is a book about bringing true prayer to life, preferably before real life includes an eighteen-wheeler or other looming disaster. I won't claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won't help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won't even make life easier.
What it can do -- what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done -- is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately.
But Kate is so right. Prayer won't get you a new car or a shinier computer. It won't bring your soulmate to your door. It won't make life easier. (Life might get easier from time to time. I hope that it does! But I can't assert with any certainty that prayer is what will make it so.) But prayer can, and does, help awaken us to the selves we most want to be. More compassionate; more aware of our blessings, and more grateful for them; more able to cry out when we are in need, and to respond to the cries of those we meet. Prayer isn't for God's sake; it's for ours. When we pray, it changes us.
Or, as Kate writes:
Even now that I am a chaplain, my expectations for prayer are pretty low. Though sometimes moved to spontaneous prayer by an experience of the sacred (sacred sorrow or sacred joy), more often I pray because I have committed myself to it as a practice or because it's my job. So what remains the most surprising fact about prayer for me is that it consistently exceeds my expectations.
Gratitude is perhaps the easiest place to begin any conversation about prayer. (I've heard that Meister Eckhart once said that "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.") That's where Kate starts, too:
I can't thank myself for the impossible fact of my existence. With all due respect, I can't thank you for it, either. Maybe I don't have to thank anyone for it -- but I am thankful, dammit! And I'm sure it's bad for my blood pressure to keep all that thankfulness bottled up inside.
Right on. I try to say a prayer for gratitude every day, too -- and that's the practice I most often suggest to others who may be uncertain about whether a prayer life is something they want. Just try articulating your gratitude. Gratitude is a great place to begin. (And I find that the more I articulate it, the more I say thank you, the more aware I am of reasons to keep saying thank you.)
Near as I can tell, Kate would agree. Prayer, she writes, is like exercise. There will never be a moment in the life of someone who exercises when she will be able to say, "that's it, I'm done, I'm perfectly fit, and I can stop now." Just so for we who pray: it's not something one does in order to be finished with it and never have to do it again. Prayer, like exercise, is a practice. And it won't always be the same, from one year to the next, but the practice itself can help to sustain us when we are in need. (Those of y'all who've been reading Velveteen Rabbi for a while may remember my musings on this subject over the first year or so of my son Drew's life -- posts like Prayer life changes, or the essay Parenthood and prayer at Zeek.)
Kate is a chaplain to the Maine forest service. (You may remember this from the post I made -- Kate Braestrup on marriage, God, and love -- about one of her previous books, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity.) Like every chaplain, her service often takes the form of answering the call: the Call from beyond, in the sense of having a vocation or calling, and also the call which comes via phone or beeper or radio, the call to the emergency room or the cancer ward (or, in Kate's case, to an icebound riverbank in rural Maine where the dive team is preparing to recover the body of someone who lived and who was loved.) She writes beautifully about prayer offered in hospitals, in a way that resonates with what I remember from my own chaplaincy training; she writes about childrens' bedtime prayers, about the challenges of liturgical language, about receiving (and, later, giving) a "prescription" to pray the psalms.
And she shares some of her own prayers. Here's one of my favorites:
Blessed is the spot
And the house
And the temple
And the city street
And the human heart
And the clinic
And the sidewalk
And the bridge
And the riverbank
And the refuge
And the stony beach
And the flowering orchard
And the cliff top
And the ice floe
And the barley field
And the deep woods
Blessed is the place
Where mention of God has been made
Where God's love has been offered and received
By human voices, by human ears, by blessed human hands.
Kate writes beautifully about "threshold blessings" (prayers one might offer to, and for, a loved one as they leave the house for school or work -- is it just me, or does that make you think of a kind of live-action mezuzah?), about parents blessing their children (okay, clearly my lenses are informing the way I read this book -- priestly blessing on Shabbat, anyone?), and then she says something that really resonates for this poet and rabbi. (Okay, I'm actually including in this next blockquote two quotations from different parts of the book, but I couldn't choose.)
Prayers are not recipes or formulae, they are love poems. They need not be factual, but they must be true.
[P]rayer becomes prayer not just because the best, most perfect words are written or spoken. Instead, there is a kind of alchemy in which words are made gold through their relationship with all that cannot be written or spoken: arbitrary chance and chancy history, and the memory of all the human voices that have joined in this same utterance often enough and deliberately enmough that the words have shed their meaning and become rhythms, notes, sonic links to a common ancestry, whether of blood or of belief.
Are you starting to see why I wanted to begin this book review with a declaration of love?
Kate offers a prayer to be said at the sound of a siren, which reminds me of one of the spiritual practices I learned from my beloved teacher Reb Zalman, saying a prayer (the Biblical ana, el na, refa na la -- "God, please God, heal her" -- which Moshe says for his sister Miriam) every time I hear an ambulance. Later, she writes, "To truly love our neighbor as ourselves is to risk ourselves." This is radical wisdom, and it is -- she is -- right.
Here's one more quote from the book. (I'm not going to give you more than this; I don't want to spoil it for you, and there's a lot of excellent stuff here to discover.) This is Kate writing at the end of a chapter in which she has considered the story of Jesus' crucifixion, acts of charity in the grocery store, and her chagrin at the lived limits of her own vision and kindness. Kate writes:
There is the grand, beautiful, unconditional, limitless love we want to give one another, the love that bears all things, endures all things, believeth all things, the love that sees. And then there is the stingy, shabby, nearsighted human love we find ourselves giving. The aching, immeasurable distance between one and the other can be filled only by grace.
I can't think of a better message to read during the latter part of this month of Av, when on the Jewish calendar we are beginning the slow seven-week climb to Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, as we prepare to enter our season of teshuvah, turning and re/turning to align ourselves in the right direction. There's much to be thankful for in this existence -- I try to articulate my own list daily -- but today I am grateful for Kate Braestrup. Thanks for reminding me of these things that matter, Kate, and thank you for this gentle and generous introduction to prayer. Bless you.