For Christmas, my sister gave me the newest book from one of my favorite authors: Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott. My favorite authors tend to be those who write things that I wish I’d written, and Anne Lamott’s many essays on motherhood and faith and struggle are definitely some of those things. Her most recent book ponders the three prayers we most often say to communicate with God, each of which can be reduced in its shortest form to one word: Help. Thanks. Wow.
The book, at 102 pages, is as slim as its prayers, and just as packed with meaning. I read it in one glorious afternoon by a sunny window, pausing frequently to savor a particularly wonderful image or phrase. Anne Lamott is a gifted crafter of words and teller of truths, whose work often makes me stop to say "Wow" and "Thanks," sometimes simultaneously. As I read, I was struck by the similarity of Lamott’s three prayers to an acronym I learned from another youth minister back when I taught Confirmation classes to Catholic teenagers. The acronym was ACTS, and was intended as an easy way for young people to remember the rather cumbersome Catholic names of four types of prayer: A for Adoration (or Wow), C for Contrition, T for Thanksgiving (Thanks, obviously), and S for Supplication (Help!). And I realized that the book I was reading, as beautifully, viscerally written as it was, was perhaps missing a fourth one-word prayer: Contrition, more colloquially known as Sorry.
Is it my Catholic guilt that would amend the title of Anne Lamott’s book to Help, Thanks, Sorry, Wow? Our reputation is for excessive and unnecessary guilt-tripping, of ourselves and others. We say an Act of Contrition during confession, because an essential component of the sacrament of Reconciliation is being sorry for our sins. We regret sinning, and we resolve to try our darnedest to do a better job next time. From personal experience, I have to believe that Sorry is indeed a good prayer.
Because we humans can be a sorry lot. We get God’s message wrong, or we run with only a part of it, or we ignore the message entirely, or we are sure that there is no message. Sometimes we know what is right, but we do the opposite anyway, because the wrong thing is easier, or causes less heartache, or doesn’t rock the proverbial boat in which we are comfortably sailing. We screw things up, but if we believe in a God of Second (and Fortieth) Chances, who loves us infinitely, we can breathe a prayer of Sorry, and try again. Sorry usually goes hand-in-hand with a solid Help prayer. When we are sorry, we need help finding the light, or even just surrendering to the possibility of light.
Sorry, even quietly said, matters. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, the catchphrase from the 1970s juggernaut novel and movie “Love Story”, does not fly, at least not for any relationship I’ve ever had. Love means there will be plenty of times you’ll need to say you’re sorry, and you have to be able both to say it and to forgive the person who says it to you. Which of those things is harder for you may depend on your personality.
“I do not know much about God and prayer,“ begins Anne Lamott’s lovely book, “but I have come to believe, over the last twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.” She is perhaps being modest about what she knows, as her writing has touched the hearts and souls of many faithful readers. I love her three prayers, and would add an occasional Sorry as a fourth offering. Along with Help, Thanks, and Wow, Sorry can also be a bringer of grace, a response to God’s great love, a breath of prayer to go before Amen.