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'Make Me an Instrument' : How-to-pray books to satisfy every soul's longing

December 17, 1995|MARY ROURKE | Mary Rourke is a Times staff writer

How do you pray?

If you've never tried it, you might wonder about the details: What to do with your hands? Maybe you're not sure whether to call God him or her? And what if he--or she--is more like a lover than a parent for you? Then what do you say?

It could help to find out what other people do. Maybe Billy Graham, the Baptist preacher, has some tips. Maybe Marianne Williamson, his new age counterpart, would be willing to tell what she asks for in prayer.

The answers to these and other unconventional questions are contained in an assortment of prayer books newly published this season. All of them help move the notion of prayer into the modern age.

If prayer seems like a foreign language, the place to start might be "How I Pray." Here, people from Father Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and best-selling novelist, to Norman Lear, who claims no religious affiliation, write about how they pray.

Greeley doesn't use any traditional prayers; he makes up his own and enters them in a computer journal. And he writes poetry to God as a woman. "It's hard for a man to feel intimate with a manly God," he finds.

Lear's associations with prayer are equally modern. He prays as he walks the morning treadmill. Of the Prayer to St. Francis of Assisi, which begins "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace," he writes: "It isn't asking for anything but to be a better person."

For Graham, prayer is an impromptu conversation. "I find myself praying while I'm talking to people," he writes. I say, "Lord, help me to say the thing that will encourage people to believe."

Carole Mumin of Washington, D.C., a Muslim who founded People in Service to Others, knows that her prayers are authentic when she can feel an electric charge. "There's a contact between you and your Creator," she finds. And there is High Star, a Lakota Sioux medicine man in Taos, N.M., who writes: "To live each day is a prayer in the sense that it's an expression of God."

Many people, of course, need no more printed help than a dogeared copy of the Bible to open in a private moment. Editions of the Bible are myriad, and there's a style to suit every taste.

Turner Publishing's "The Holy Bible" is like a Las Vegas hotel. It could be Caesar's Palace or the Luxor Sphinx, newly constructed but meant to recall the ancient and lasting. The book is built of the best classical ingredients, starting with the art, hugely reproduced in this 10-by-14-inch creation from the Vatican Library collection. The translation is the scholarly New Revised Standard Version.

Pages in the front of the book allow for a family genealogy to be penned on folio sheets that resemble Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, as if a royal family history were to be preserved. Gold leaf shimmers throughout. The archival-quality paper and specially treated gold ink ensure longevity. The unspoken hope is that the family that prays together will last as many generations.

"The Five Books of Moses" is the first of what will be a four-volume Bible translation by Everett Fox, professor of Judaica at Clark University, Worcester, Mass. Although most Bible translations are the work of a team, this is one man's spiritual exercise, 27 years in the making. Fox starts from the position that the Bible speaks in a language quite different from ours. It was meant to be read aloud, which people tend to forget, and it is filled with ancient forms of prayer. Fox intends his translation to sound prayerful.

In his version, meant to restore the most ancient language and rhythm, even familiar personal names and places will seem foreign, unless you're on good terms with Hebrew. There is Yhwh (the Lord), Avraham (Abraham), Moshe (Moses). And the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea, parts for the Israelites to escape Pharaoh's army.

Many texts we recognize as prayers are passages from the Bible, lifted out and placed in Jewish and Christian liturgies. But more recent poetry can be prayer, too. Sometimes, the writer seems to be searching:

My period had come for Prayer--

No other Art--would do--

My tactics missed a rudiment--

Creator--was it you?

--Untitled, Emily Dickinson

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At other times, the writer is absolutely certain:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil . . . .

"God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins

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