NEWS FEATURE: Books forge a new path for prayer outside the fold

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ At the tender age of 27, author Doris Grumbach experienced an “extraordinary thing.” She felt the presence of God.

“What happened was this,” wrote Grumbach, now 80. “I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seemed to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight … It went on, second after second, so pervasive that it seemed to fill my entire body. I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it. Then, with no warning, and surely without preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: for the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.”

In her recently published book, “The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and An Epiphany,” Grumbach described her efforts, some 50 years later, to feel God’s presence again. Judging the church too “distracting,” she forged her own spiritual path.

A new slew of books about prayer suggests Grumbach is not alone. While inspirational tomes continue to gobble up space in both religious and secular bookstores, most of these volumes target specific audiences. There are books for men and women, children and grandparents, African Americans, New-Agers,Jews, Buddhists and Muslims.

But a growing number of authors, like Ms. Grumbach, are telling their own stories and, in the process, reaching readers who are outside institutional religion.

This new market reflects the gulf between the “religious,” or institutional path and the “spiritual,” or personal one, said Don Lattin, co-author of the new book “Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.”

“Brand-name religion is on the wane, so it follows that the prayer life of Americans is more eclectic and more personalized than ever,” said Lattin, who writes about religion for the San Francisco Chronicle. “People are more interested in spirituality and prayer than ever. Although it’s not always clear what they mean by `spiritual’ or to whom they are praying.”

Author Maxine Outlaw knows what she means by spiritual _ it’s connecting with God without getting bogged down in a lot of theological nitpicking.

That’s why Outlaw named her book “Pray Like Hell.” She hopes the title will attract eager, if irreverent, seekers who are open to experimenting with where and how they pray.

“When I’m in my garden _ mucking around the dirt, flinging compost, and watering the sage and lavender _ I’m aware of being held in God’s hand,” said Outlaw, a former Presbyterian minister. “Also, when I’m walking and telling God what’s wrong, I feel taken out of myself for a time.”

Although a world of difference separates Outlaw’s plain speech from Grumbach’s spiritual peregrinations, the two women address a deeply felt dilemma: How to develop a relationship with God when you do not frequent the places where most people find one?

Christianity, as a rule, does not view this relationship as a solitary pursuit. Rather, it involves community and service _ as Grumbach herself noted.

“Without a community of worshippers, sustaining each other’s faith and serving Christ’s injunctions about service to the world in His name, I may fall (have already fallen) into narcissism, sterile exercises of the mind,idiosyncratic, even mistaken and arid ways of searching for God.”

After 50 years in the church, Grumbach felt it was time for a change. But others say the process may also go the opposite way: praying alone may lead back to a worshipping community.

Robert Benson advises his readers to start where they are. And in “Living Prayer,” he describes how his private meditations brought him, a former evangelical, back to church.

“I write for people who are wounded Christians,” said Benson, now an Episcopal layman who leads ecumenical retreats. “Their experience of church hurt them or left them feeling they weren’t up to the church’s expectations. They’re on the outside even if they are still in the pews.”

Benson’s goal is to teach readers to “pay attention” to their lives and to show them how the Christian tradition can help do that.

While the Psalms, the liturgy, and a course in spiritual formation deepened Benson’s prayer life, other writers propose alternate routes.

Janice Connell, author of “Prayer Power: Secrets of Healing and Protection,” offers stories and prayers of spiritual leaders to assist those needing a place to start. In “Music of Silence,” Father David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, integrates monastic insights into the rhythms of everyday life to “make everything we do prayer.”

And Jane Redmont, whose book “When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life,” will be available in 1999, culls prayers and reflections from a wide spectrum of sources. There are meditations from the early church, spiritual centering exercises, and interviews with evangelicals, Buddhists and Jews.

Redmont, a Catholic feminist theologian, draws inspiration from her own eclectic background. Born to Jewish parents, raised a Unitarian and a teen-age practitioner of yoga and meditation, she converted to Catholicism as a young adult. She herself is an active church member, but is more interested in helping people pray than pushing them into the pews. Her own experiences convinced her that prayer was a basic part of life.

“About five years ago, I went through a major depression and I saw how my prayer life changed,” she said. “When I was recovering one of the things that helped me was to sing _ aloud and in church. That’s how I got the title of the book.”

Grumbach, who enjoys a reclusive life in a small Maine village, chose a title that reflects her experience of waiting to feel God’s presence and the dawning recognition that “for some time, and perhaps forever, I would be in the company of God’s absence.”

Yet, after three years of praying and reading alone, she said that her solitary journey has provided a sense of “emptiness” and the “infinite.”

“I find the practice satisfactory,” Grumbach said simply. “And I think it has given me a stronger faith.”

IR END WINSTON

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