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Book challenges the parameters of prayer


By Jane Redmont
Harper Collins, 421 pages, $25 hard cover


One cannot read this book and remain the same. It is a book that stretches traditional thinking about God without discarding tradition, distilling what is salient while gently nudging fresh ideas our way.

When in Doubt, Sing is a revitalizing book, meant to be pondered slowly, perhaps in a journal or through dialogue. Redmont approaches her subject as much from personal experience as from her Ph.D. work at Graduate Theological Union. Born of Jewish parents who later became Unitarian, Redmont, a feminist theologian who studies yoga, is a Catholic practicing in an urban congregation with a penchant for gospel.

Redmont draws from this rich diversity in formulating ideas about prayer. She also incorporates the experiences and practices of others received through an intensive cyber-inquiry. The melding of these sources reflects an essential aspect of prayer: It is at once personal and public.

“Our whole life belongs in prayer: emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, affective, social, economic, political in the broadest sense of that word. Our doubts and our pain, not only our wishes and our dreams. Our whole selves.”

Such a premise immediately challenges conventional parameters. Yet, Redmont points out, this approach finds its template in the life of Jesus Christ and other biblical brethren. For them and for us, prayer is relationship with God, encompassing our entire lives.

The 27 chapters of When in Doubt, Sing address the seasons of that relationship and offer ways for it to deepen. In each chapter Redmont shares real life anecdotes, insight from various theologians and religious texts and exercises pertinent to the subject. The topics are roughly chronological, corresponding to the maturation of a relationship.

Accordingly, Redmont explores ways to meet and get to know God in the beginning chapters. She stresses the words of Thomas Merton to alleviate initial hesitation or feelings of unworthiness: “Don’t set limits to the mercy of God. Don’t believe that because you are not pleasing to yourself you are not pleasing to God. God doesn’t ask for results. God asks for love.”

Redmont then discusses ways to relate to God authentically and comfortably through forms of prayer ranging from the use of icons and rituals, meditation to singing. In these and other forms offered, Redmont consistently refers to biblical precedents.

In the chapter “Praying With the Body,” for example, Redmont points to the physicality of Jesus beyond Incarnation or Eucharist. “You will find bodiliness nearly everywhere [in the gospels]. Jesus touches eyes, ears, mouths, restoring speech and sight. ... Even after the Resurrection, Jesus is still dealing with bodies, breaking bread on the road to Emmaus, grilling fish on the beach, showing wounds to a doubting disciple.”

The theme of this chapter resonates throughout. We know, worship and pray to God through our individual and collective bodies. Redmont stresses the two as inseparable; individual relationships take place within a living context informed by history and tradition. The baptism of a friend’s son vividly captures this union while providing an unconventional example of prayer. The parents asked loved ones to send water that would be blessed by the priest and used in the baptism. They received water from the Ganges, from Walden Pond, well water, salt water and fresh.

Since Redmont couldn’t attend the ceremony, she sent the boy a letter along with the water: “With all your friends and family I welcome you to the church. It’s got its problems, but let me tell you two wonderful things about it. This baptism makes you related to millions of people! People from Zimbabwe and France and Brazil and New Zealand. People of all different colors and shapes and sizes speaking different languages and singing different songs and eating different foods. They too are your aunties and uncles and brothers and sisters. Imagine that!

“And all of them are friends of Jesus. That’s the second wonderful thing: being a friend of Jesus. He was a real person many years ago, but he’s all over the place now, too. You can talk to him and listen to him and hear his stories and ask questions about him. You can hear how he was friends with everyone — poor people and rich people, women and men, and little children like you, too; he always made room for children. He also liked very old women and men. There was always room at the table for one more person; that’s the way Jesus is.”

Redmont’s letter eloquently and simply explains the legacy of Christianity bestowed through the ritual of baptism. The letter also expresses what is essential to any ritual; it is a way to re-member because it brings together or makes whole.

When Redmont lost a friend and could not find words of her own to grieve, she repeated the words of the Requiem Mass. Years later, she realized she had been praying for him in the plural. “I said the words, but the words were not mine. I felt the grief; grief was not mine alone. All those who mourn and all those who have died were present in the prayer. The words were not mine, but there was room for all my grief inside them.”

We belong to a spiritual fellowship that spans history and geography. Redmont reminds us that we are not merely passive inheritors of something lifeless. Instead, what we have received is dynamic and calls for our participation. In human relationships, we care about the concerns of those we love; it is no different with God.

Karl Barth urges us to pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. One reveals who is on the heart of God: the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the marginal; the other where to seek them. Here, too, prayer takes on a corporal form, for we attend to God’s cares with our bodies and as a body of believers.

It’s easy to question whether this book is really about prayer, perhaps because we approach prayer with narrow definitions that do not have room for the abundance suggested. Redmont challenges these definitions in a curative, enlightening manner, providing new perspectives on the familiar and opportunities to relate to God more intimately.

Throughout, Redmont refers to the prayers, relationships with God, modeled in the Bible. Among others, David raged, grieved, rejoiced, wept, lamented, and yes, even danced before the Lord. With gentle passion, Redmont exhorts us, “go and do likewise.”

Mary Silwance is a staff writer and book reviewer for Review, a Kansas City, Mo., arts publication.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999