Article first published as Book Review: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott on Blogcritics.
Anne Lamott definitely stretches the boundaries of Christian writing. For that, we can thank her. Yes, she swears, says honest and unkind things (usually about herself), sometimes refers to God as Phil, and even lets slip a longing for her earlier, non-Christian lifestyle.
In her most recent book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,” Lamott takes her earthly approach to the most holy of acts, prayer. In this short work, she talks about each of the three prayers and ends with some thoughts on “Amen.”
She notes at the outset that “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” If other prayer books make you feel wholly inadequate to seek communion with God, Lamott will get you shouting at God without guilt. “God can handle honesty, and prayer begins as an honest conversation.”
Of the three prayers, her section on “Help” is the strongest. Although a short book, this could even be shortened more as the multiple of examples for one type of prayer can become tiresome. And Lamott always has a tendency to want to show people how cool she is — she tires too hard, since her unique approach to life is clear. But perhaps she has used “Help” more than other prayers, so her words hit the mark with assurance.
Calling it “the first great prayer,” she says in praying for help we find “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing.”
The theme that runs clearly through all of Lamott’s writing, is the power of grace. She does not get why God would forgive her, but she is forgiven, so she accepts it. But grace does not create some sudden understanding of God, or a clear answer to our prayers in the way we want them. “Grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on. Through the most ordinary things…life is transformed.”
Lamott appropriately follow up the section on “Help” with the prayer of “Thanks.” More than a prayer, Lamott seeks for us to live a life of gratitude. This has the danger of sliding into banal platitudes, but Lamott refuses to lose that essential, theological language. “Thanks” is not simply what we say to God, but is seen in our actions as well. And it needs, she argues, to be a habit.
The final prayer, “Wow,” is not so much about words as our reaction to the divine. “Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace.” Such reactions are not limited to beautiful sunsets, but can be found in art galleries and at the sight of a natural disaster. It is the sense of awe which becomes increasingly difficult to grasp as the world manufactures more ways to confuse our senses. But sooner or later, and they are not rare events, we come to face the awe-inspiring, and we say “wow.”
Lamott, in her usual style, has taken a challenging topic and made it very accessible. The reader will finish feeling good about their prayer life, even if it is nonexistent. And then they will feel like they can pray if they want to. In fact, as Lamott’s simple prayers show, we may be praying without even knowing it.