Reinventing the (prayer) wheel
In April 2015 I was reporting on a massive and massively expensive 10th-century Gospel book from a German monastery when something smaller but arguably more precious turned up. The big book’s owner, a rare-manuscripts dealer, directed my attention to its flyleaf. There, in a spidery hand not at all like the rest of the book’s, was a circular diagram in red and black ink: a wheel containing four concentric bands. Written in each band in Latin was a circular text. At the very center was the word DEUS, God. And attached was a legend that seemed straight out of The Lord of the Rings: “THE ORDER OF THE DIAGRAM WRITTEN HERE TEACHES THE WAY HOME.”
It got my attention. The texts in the bands turned out to be the Our Father, the Beatitudes, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and a seven-part spiritual life of Christ. The owner called the figure the Prayer Wheel.
She explained that a monk with a compass (she pointed out the central hole) had added it when the book was already over a hundred years old. Each of the circular texts was divided into seven parts, which aligned with one another to form what could be called the Wheel’s spokes, or paths. One path ran through all the first parts, a second through all the second parts, and so on. Thus you could read the familiar passages in the four bands, or you could pray your way down a spoke from the Wheel’s perimeter to the center, picking up an element from each text as you headed God-ward. Focusing on each of these steppingstones individually and in sequence you, too, could find “the way home.”
I loved the Wheel’s look (the red ink was ground cinnabar; the brown was made of oak gall), its air of stored energy and most of all its workings: Without taking the four texts apart—without any actual movement at all—it first presented them and then reorganized them. So dense are the basic Christian ideas in each passage that the resulting recombinations managed to be both fresh and orthodox. Although the Wheel came with no further instructions, its legend, design and the texts identified it as a meditation device or a system of prayer prompts: a tool.
I loved the Wheel’s look, its air of stored energy and most of all its workings.
Recovered medieval spiritual practices have been expanding into modern usage for decades now: labyrinths inspired by the one built into the floor of Chartres Cathedral; fixed-hour prayer derived from the monastic Liturgy of the Hours; lectio divina, the monks’ slow meditation upon short scriptural passages. I felt sure that the Wheel was more than suited to join them, especially if people understood its promise for helping to generate personal prayer, an area where many people feel they could use some assistance.
The problem was, I am a secular Jew.
This never hindered a career in religion reporting. But now, I did not want to just write about the Wheel. I wanted it to operate, to live out a new chapter in its destiny. That was going to require someone who could actually use it for prayer and then report on how that was done.
I asked two friends, Patton and Jana, who had both written eloquently about their own faith, to join me as partners.
I did not want to just write about the Wheel. I wanted it to operate, to live out a new chapter in its destiny.
We continued looking into the Wheel’s history. Between 1000 and 1500, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of similar figures sprinkled through Europe, although only about 70 survive today. We traced the Wheel’s animating idea back to St. Augustine and its design to an unknown Benedictine monk in the 11th century.
But as we progressed in our work, it became increasingly clear that its story and mechanics were going to take a back seat to creating a model of how to actually pray it. The ratio of history-to-devotional, which I had imagined as one-to-one, shifted: at first gradually but then decisively when we contracted to write a book about the Wheel with a faith imprint. The best opportunity to see whether the Wheel could be revived was its interface with the reader—and, in turn, with God.
Once we signed our contract, I kept working on “my” part of the book, trying to refine and improve it, but I mostly found myself rewriting it in ever-smaller iterations. Occasionally, Patton or Jana would lend a hand. Meanwhile, they were on a different kind of journey. They prayed, they talked on the phone, they prayed, they wrote.
The best opportunity to see whether the Wheel could be revived was its interface with the reader—and, in turn, with God.
I felt like someone watching a chef make a soufflé through a glass pane. And all the more so as Patton and Jana began to incorporate the Wheel into their personal prayer and the fabric of their lives—and integrating their experience back into the manuscript.
By our last draft the ratio of history to prayer in the 203-page book was more like 1-to-12.
I cannot say that I took it all with grace.
The role of a secular journalist is to convey information; the role of a devotional is to facilitate and magnify faith. I do not think that I truly understood how very different they are. I was fascinated by the elegance and the ingenuity of the Wheel. And I had convinced myself that my readers would be, too. But my ideal reader was in fact motivated less by the workings of the gizmo than by the workings of the spirit: less the turning of spokes than the turning of the heart toward God.
I cannot say how many times I have sat, head bowed, with praying people. I have a small prayer of gratitude that I say a few times a week, less to be in communication with God than to let the universe know that I know how lucky I am. I am writing a book about the Psalms through history.
But of the specific, deeply conscious, deeply committed Christian prayer prompted by the Wheel, my knowledge is almost completely head knowledge. Which, for devotional purposes, is secondary.
Today, the finished book lies in front of me. It is beautiful. I find myself falling in love again, and read the book’s 49-day prayer series with a new fascination.
The role of a secular journalist is to convey information; the role of a devotional is to facilitate and magnify faith.
I notice that the more formally cast a prayer is, the better I appreciate it. The trick of the Wheel is to introduce you to unfamiliar connections between familiar ideas. For Jana and Patton this meant crafting a model prayer that captured the new energy and meaning along each path. Here is part of their prayer for the second spoke, which runs “Your Kingdom Come” (from the Our Father); “Understanding” (from the Gifts); Baptism (from the life of Christ); and “Clean of heart; for they shall see God” (from the Beatitudes):
Show me your presence, your will and your ways—in the scriptures, in my ordinary day, in the starfish fingers of a newborn, in the beauty of faith.
I am very comfortable with this. I can appreciate it intellectually—they hit all the steppingstones—and aesthetically, because it is beautiful.
The trick of the Wheel is to introduce you to unfamiliar connections between familiar ideas.
But there are other paths down that I cannot follow, Christian prayers in a tradition running back through—yes—the Psalms, startling in their full voice and their intimacy:
Your mercy, Jesus—what a beautiful gift!/ What an amazing response of strength!/ Bless me and all who follow you/ with your beautiful, transforming gift of mercy today/ that we too may participate in your saving work in the world!
This is beyond me.
And I have come to peace with that. I am not sure there is any word in the lexicon or even a decent metaphor for what I have ended up being in this project. A prayer midwife? The blind man who bequeaths a Rembrandt to the museum? Someone who finds a pearl of great price in his backyard, is not susceptible to pearls, but knows some people who are? Close.
It is enough to be the middleman, even I cannot be a central man.
And I accept that I will not witness the true proof that the ancient, holy mechanism still works. I can easily imagine its application in family rooms and hospital bedsides and possibly in pews. I can just barely intuit that its revolving sequences of faith and wisdom might replicate themselves in readers’ hearts. As to the vital what-comes-next, it may be a mystery even to people experiencing it. It will certainly be a mystery to me.
How interesting to write about prayer, but not pray! It is like writing about swimming rather than going swimming. You can learn more about swimming in five minutes in the water than you can by reading about it for months.