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The Struggle to Become Truly Human
A Review of Michael Plekon's Uncommon Prayer
Nicholas Denysenko

Prayer is among the few religious practices that remain a topic of steady interest among the ebbs and flows of Church growth and decline. The sustainability of the topic of prayer would seem to render the publication of another book on prayer insignificant—after all, what could demonstrate that a new book on prayer is truly one-of-a-kind? To the surprise and delight of readers, Michael Plekon’s Uncommon Prayer is not only original, but pushes the boundaries of the common definitions of prayer. The adjective “uncommon” seems designed to unveil the primary feature of this book, but there is much more to be learned about prayer in reading Plekon.

“Uncommon” does not satisfactorily define the words and rituals Plekon describes as prayer—his book depicts prayer as a collection of writings, dialogues, encounters, and ritual processes that are deeply wound up in the tumult of daily life, the chaos of life-changing events, the complications of community, and participation in the world. Uncommon Prayer is not a taxonomy of prayer or a guidebook—instead, it’s akin to putting raw, live, real observance of the way that people really pray into words. No book of prayers that people can say at appointed times could possibly contain the myriad of ways that people pray as described by Plekon. The reader’s realization that covering all of the ways and types of prayer is impossible is simultaneously the crowning achievement and great frustration of Plekon’s work. This is not a criticism of the author—despite the anxiety his reading produced for this reviewer, he has essentially liberated prayer from institutional control, and, better yet, his definition of uncommon prayer makes conforming it to a taxonomy an impossible task.

Authors are effective when they build upon their strengths, and Plekon’s Uncommon Prayer is methodologically compatible with his recent monographs that redefine the meaning of holiness (Hidden Holiness, Saints as They Really Are). Drawing deeply from his sociological training, Plekon listens carefully to a selection of voices and immerses himself in community. Another reviewer might challenge the author on his selection of voices: he draws largely from North American figures—monastic and lay, theologians and poets—who represent Christian diversity. Therefore, this book does not examine prayer through the lens of religious or racial plurality. Nevertheless, the author performs his task well because he is capable of working with the material at his disposal, and his coverage of theologians of the Russian Religious Renaissance in immigration adds an international dimension to the text.

Plekon’s selection of voices includes well-known theologians such as Thomas Merton, Sarah Coakley, Rowan Williams, and Richard Rohr, the renowned poet Mary Oliver, and the champion of Catholic social ethics Dorothy Day; he stretches the boundaries by including excerpts from columnist Heather Havrilevsky. Plekon adds his own recollection of experiences with students during his teaching career and observances from being part of a community of primarily older folks at his Orthodox parish in Wappingers Falls, New York, that gathers to make pirogi. Plekon is multidisciplinary in his approach—his personal observations make up a large chunk of the book, so it is a combination of careful listening and observation with fragments of memoir. Holding together the pieces of text is his thesis, drawn from Paul Evdokimov and confirmed by the collection he has gathered: prayer is not so much words, but a process wherein the person becomes prayer through all of life’s activities. Prayer is also complicated—it cannot be reduced to a pithy definition or captivating image but it is frequently akin to wrestling, with God and with one’s self.

The quality of prayer as struggle is something Plekon teases out from the text with eloquence. His inclusion of Christian Wiman’s poetry delivers insight into the story of a man who survives a cancer diagnosis and subsequently reflects on the entirety of his life through his struggles with the disease (78-86). This is not only a matter of questioning God and pondering the meaning of human suffering, but it is also an exploration of the way sickness demands adjustment in all other areas of one’s life. In Wiman’s case, reflection on God and sickness cannot be separated from his relationship with his wife and children and the possibility that the dreaded disease could return (82). Wiman’s poetry sounds like prayer but it is much more than that—it is the struggle to find meaning in the midst of human suffering.

Plekon’s coverage of Merton elucidates the same struggle in a different way. Here, Plekon shows how Merton’s spirituality revolved around the work of daily life: engaging the physical activity of menial labor; meeting God in the act of cutting wood; seeing the design of God in the forest surrounding the monastery (60–62). Plekon’s honest look at Merton reminds us that no struggle is reducible to a single moment or one brilliant idea that influences many people. Merton himself struggled with his vocation. He lived on the edge of life—evidenced by his falling in love with a nurse—and this struggle is an important part of the person who wrote so eloquently about discovering God in the little things of life (55).   

Plekon’s most persuasive examples of prayer as struggle come from the sections I have described as akin to memoir. In addition to his testimony on the evolution of his prayer list over the years and how that list symbolized the communion he shared with those for whom he prayed, Plekon drew from years of participation in the small group that gathered to make pirogi at St. Gregory’s. Plekon notes that the people pour themselves out to one another, spending the time sharing their joys and sorrows, comforting one another, and listening (177–82). This is a powerful image of an ongoing gathering of people in a tight community. A bit later, Plekon adds examples from his classroom experience. He shares the story of a student who responded to a difficult memoir by sharing her own painful experience of taking on the majority of household chores because this was expected of her as a girl, and assisting with an ill grandparent while bearing the expectation of academic excellence (210–211). When she admitted that these challenges contributed to depression, her fellow students responded with empathy and encouragement, leading to “more intense conversation” (211). Plekon describes his classroom experience as a “community of trust” where individuals felt safe to make themselves vulnerable to others and thus disclose their true selves (211).

This community of trust is similar to the pirogi group—dialogues are exchanged in a pattern of pouring out, receiving another’s outpouring, and responding with charity. This pattern of person-to-person dialogue evokes the hope of one’s prayer to God: that God would hear that prayer and respond with charity. In these examples, Plekon highlights the way prayer involves making one’s self vulnerable to another or others; his description of a community of trust is what makes this vulnerability possible. The view one obtains of this particular type of uncommon prayer is the wholeness that can come from disclosing one’s self as one truly is to another. Trust engenders vulnerability, and honest self-disclosure makes it possible for the one who is releasing their burden to receive charity from another.

Plekon ends his treatment of the examples and types of uncommon prayer by profiling Richard Rohr, who depicts the spiritual life as one of “falling upwards” (241-2).  In terms of literary genre, reading Rohr at this point feels out of place, since the primary figures of the book appear earlier. But Plekon features Rohr at the end to show that the struggles and sufferings of life and the failures of perfecting prayer make it possible for one to stand still before God and realize that life is not about “me,” but that life is experienced in community and is about much more than our “private lives” (244). Plekon builds upon Rohr to argue that the falling upwards results in the insight that it is not about “me” and permits one to see that liturgy leads one to seek justice and feed the hungry (244).  Uncommon prayer, then, usually happens in the context of community. It is not a set of prescribed words, but a series of rites, dialogues, exchanges, and the constant struggle to come to terms with God about one’s self and one’s place in the local community. Plekon’s achievement here is tremendous: despite drawing from broadly diverse sources, he shows that prayer is tied up with all of life, and his connection of uncommon prayer to community makes it possible for him to confirm Evdokimov and claim that one is called not to pray, but to “become prayer” (229).

Some readers might quibble with Plekon’s claims, especially given the complications of community. His treatment here occasionally sounds utopian. To his credit, Plekon asserts that the communities he profiles are also flawed and are hardly univocal, sometimes bursting into places of veritable tension, conflict, and even alienation (182–6 and elsewhere). Other readers might wonder if God is removed from the picture, especially when Plekon narrates his experiences from the classroom. Is it prayer if it is not directed to God? In these instances, Plekon seems to draw the parallel between intercessory prayer (asking others to pray for you) and the real-life, enfleshed instances of people actively responding to the petitions and testimonies of another. Plekon sees these real-life events as prayer lived out, incarnating Evdokimov’s ideal that one would become prayer. Others might suggest that these are informal and even formal instances of collegial support; the relationship between therapeutic human dialogue in community and prayer probably deserves more analysis.

Plekon has given readers something new and interesting to consider here. And that is the beauty of this book, its greatest benefit: Plekon has lifted the curtain and unveiled a diverse array of prayer practices that take place every day. These prayers are not so much said, but lived in the crucible of daily life. Above all, prayer is a struggle to become truly human, and thinking about “who I am” in the chaotic universe governed by God is a worthwhile and noble pursuit. We have Michael Plekon to thank for guiding us on the journey of uncommon prayer.

 

Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University.

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