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Help, Thanks, Wowby Anne Lamott

Riverhead Books. 112p $17.95

“God can handle honesty and prayer begins an honest conversation,” the spiritual writer Anne Lamott asserts. Moments when she approached, even accepted it, honesty occurred when prayer was spontaneous, inarticulate.

She brought me back to my own experiences. In a dark emergency room, I waited for morning light’s arrival, with its evocation of resurrection. After revelation of a brain tumor, I thought how wrong I had been about God’s plans for me. I was devastated, nearly naked, left with truth so many plans had denied: all was God’s will. Control was illusionary. God and his deputies, like the surgeon whose tools would open my skull, would decide life or death. How light I felt: strange, sweet, terrible relief. Years later, lost on a street corner, mind unraveling into madness, my gaze instinctively went to the sky, to God. I still understood he was there. In that there was hope.

Despite intimate stories similar to mine, Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow never quite achieves the honesty expected; sarcastic humor and dense themes not unpacked undercut trust in her disclosure. Flippancy—her Presbyterian pastor being “paid to have faith”—distracts from the question of how to find the light she describes as grace. Fascinating questions—Can humans handle honesty in conversation with God? How can we have conversations not answered in language or conducted according to our comprehension of what interaction means?—receive short shrift in loosely linked anecdotes. As Catholics, mystery is central to our relationship with God; profound questions cannot always lead to certainty. But what disappoints is that Lamott does not throw her bold, daring, capable spirit into addressing how we identify, let alone respond to God in the conversation.

In a rhetorical move characteristic of this book’s unsatisfying, intriguing texture, after declaring that help, thanks and wow are the only three prayers she ever needs, Lamott adds this grace note, “besides the silence, the pain and the pause sufficient for me to stop, close my eyes and turn inward.” Grace notes change compositions, and this promises a depth unfulfilled. Three conditions singled out for importance float away, unanchored by sufficient reflection.

Lamott edges in the direction of something extremely urgent and original, the relationship between prayer and mental illness. Whether intentionally or not, she directs us here with a jarring abundance of terms, like “crazy,” “delusional,” “self-obsessed,” “madness,” “crazed,” “anxiety” and “saner.” She deems her atheist parents’ life influences “mentally-ill junkies”—yet the tone confuses, as if to deflect a refraction she will not process. She seems playful, as though such individuals would offer poor counsel, but refers to artists with divine talent—among them, Billie Holiday and William Blake.

Lamott writes about communing with God in fleeting, abandoned references to mental illness, as explicitly as stating that insanity is one of the three best conditions in which to pray. This explosive declaration could fuel an entire book, and an examination of its meaning would be a unique contribution to national discussions that currently focus not on habits of mind or on illness as a condition in which to be closer to God, but mainly, unhelpfully, as a precursor to crime or marker of evil. We never find out if Lamott uses words like “crazy” loosely, disassociated from medical connotations, but for a writer as expert as she is, vocabulary patterns are unlikely to be coincidence.

The book encourages prayer as habit, linking consistent prayer with positive changes in our ability to lead grateful lives. Here one thinks of cognitive behavior therapy and the science of changing brain chemistry by deliberately altering responses to events and purposefully shaping ideas. This connection deepens when we move from realization to transformation, which helps us reframe negative experiences.

Mass is our most comprehensive prayer, a ritual mined for relief and restitution each time we recite its rhythms. What this book argues for is informal prayers, expressed in any medium, to sustain us beyond formalized worship.

The theme of overcoming difficulties resonates in each transition between chapters. Lamott explains that a shift to grace happens through broken places, leading to thanks. Being in pain is an entry point for the “help, thanks, wow” cycle; the reader clamors for Lamott to share more about the symbiosis between pain and prayer. “Wow” appears mostly as wonder. Lamott’s imagery finally takes hold in her best prose; we shiver with joy, our fingertips feeling the veins of a leaf.

The word wow has a very different sense in American culture—to express horror at loss and shock at pain turned violent. A close reading of this book, however, yields extremely relevant, if incomplete, news and advice. Lamott suggests that prayer is religion’s contribution to maintaining a healthy mind, and it is when we do not know how to pray that we most need to try. On the other hand, honesty, we forget, can be prerequisite, a rough draft, a look to the heavens, a shout in the dark.

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