1. Books

Review: 'Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers' by Anne Lamott

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Published Nov. 17, 2012

Forget the pumpkin pie and fruitcake. At this time of year, you can suffer sugar poisoning just from all the sticky, sentimental piety the holidays come wrapped in. For a bracing antidote, try Anne Lamott's slim little book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

Although Lamott writes often about faith, she is not your ordinary religion writer. A recovering alcoholic and single mother with a wide-ranging curiosity about the world and a low tolerance for anyone's bull, she has published seven novels and six memoirish books, including Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith and Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year.

Help Thanks Wow is small enough to slip into a bag and short enough to read in a sitting, although it would repay thoughtful reading. It's a series of meditations on the nature of prayer, from Lamott's iconoclastic, ecumenical point of view:

"You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word 'prayer.' It's certainly not what TV Christians mean," she writes. "It's not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which passes understanding."

She breaks prayers down into the three categories of the title: supplication, gratitude and awe. Her focus is on genuine communication, rather than the "beautifully pre-assembled prayers. . . . the good china of prayers" prescribed by organized religions.

Lamott is, as usual, funny and self-deprecating: "People always told me, 'You've got to get a thicker skin,' like now they might say jovially, 'Let go and let God.' Believe me, if I could, I would, and in the meantime I feel like stabbing you in the forehead." But that relates to her real point about prayer — in its best and purest form it takes us way past our own petty concerns. Giving thanks, for example, is not about congratulating ourselves for our good luck:

" 'Thanks' is a huge mind-shift, from thinking that God wants our happy chatter and a public demonstration and is deeply interested in our opinions of the people we hate, to feeling quiet gratitude, humbly and amazingly, without shame at having been so blessed.

"You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too. Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable."