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Thanks to Karen Swallow Prior, I recently learned of a book by Christopher Stokes, Romantic Prayer: Reinventing the Poetics of Devotion, 1773-1832, published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Her interview with the author prompted me to acquire a copy of the book and read it. I urge those who are interested in the way we think and talk (and write) about prayer to do the same.

I have often wanted to write about prayer in various contexts but have done so only rarely, in part because I often feel great disjunction between my own experience of prayer and what many people say about it—not only in books, but in conversation, in church, and in many other settings. I hasten to add that I don’t simply assume that this sense of disjunction means that what other people say or write is wrong! In fact, one reason I read is to be reminded of the infinite variety of human experience, including “religious experience.”

Stokes, a senior lecturer in Romantic poetry at the University of Exeter, writes for scholarly readers, but in a manner that invites other interested parties to listen in. His book begins with a quotation from Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason:

[Imagine] a pious and well-meaning individual . . . being caught unawares by somebody else, I do not say praying aloud, but gesturing in a way which indicates praying. Everyone will naturally suspect, without my saying so, that this individual will fall into confusion or embarrassment, as though caught in a situation of which he ought to be ashamed. But why? Because a human being talking to himself immediately gives rise to the suspicion that he is having a slight fit of madness.

Well, Stokes observes, “Prayer was evidently not considered embarrassing by all in the late eighteenth century. Yet that Kant, writing in 1793, represents it as a solecistic act—improper, awkward, irrational—gets close to the heart of why this book engages prayer, especially in its private and intensely subjective forms, as its leading motif.” 

I wish I could linger here, not least to try to explain why this passage made me think of the sardonic novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard. And indeed, I could write on and on about just the first two pages of Stokes’s introduction—on his assertion that this was “a historical moment we may, with qualification, continue to designate as secularizing”; or his assertion that “the internalization of religious experience [whatever that means], pace Schleiermacher, is often seen as quintessentially modern” (I think immediately of Julian of Norwich); and so on and so on.

I read all of Stokes’s book (relatively short, but with small print and densely argued) in this mood of exasperation. But then again, I am often irritated, baffled, or otherwise dissatisfied with what I read or hear people saying about prayer, even as I remind myself how different our experiences of prayer may be from one another.

As I have grown older, my prayers have become shorter and much more frequent. Mostly they are silent, except during congregational prayer in church each Sunday. But at night, Wendy and I often pray aloud together: brief set prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer, but also spontaneous “outcries.” I wake up much more often during the night than I used to, and sometimes Wendy is briefly awakened by my prayers and says them with me. We treasure those moments; we would be desolate without them.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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