Book of (Un)common Prayer
Imagine your prayers materializing right before your face.
Not in CGI-induced fashion in which a mortal wound forms scar tissue, then fades from the skin’s surface in seconds. Not in a moment of melodrama, a once-distant spouse thawing in response to their partner’s faithful pleas for connection.
Something more elemental. Warm breath meeting winter’s chill, their collision creating proof of life which hangs in the air, then vanishes. A modest display of lights brightens the December dusk at their appointed time each evening, piercing someone’s inner darkness.
These moments are molecular yet still miraculous. They exist where the substance of things hoped for takes shape within a holy imagination.
Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, the recently re-issued book from the twined talents of Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson, inhabits a similar dimension. McRoberts writes prayers as simple as skipped stones—and equally capable of causing sustained ripples. They find answers in the modern iconography of Erickson, whose soulful work gives credence to the notion that an artist’s every mark creates meaning.
The word “may” initiates each of McRoberts’ prayers. This choice, he writes, “is a way to enter into the extant movement of God rather than feel we are responsible for chasing Him down somewhere we aren’t yet living.”
Matching the tense and tone of God’s creation prayers “suggests that Reality should be the way God desires it,” McRoberts adds, “not simply because he says so but because being shaped and ordered according to the Divine Will is the fullest expression of Reality.”
These prayers spill out with confidence and meekness. They wrestle with the many contradictions within the space of a human heart, yet keep their hands outstretched to a wanting world.
Voiced with even a mustard-seed faith, the prayers here divest the soul of its need to be right. They shake a body up before it feels at home in mud and mire. They refuse to be defined by weakness, yet glory in that weakness as a means to connection with God and others.
Erickson’s exquisite, often unsettling, renderings of these prayers teach us to expect with hearts which float, even on troubled waters. They train our eyes to see beyond the superficial to the possibilities waiting and willing to break through.
To represent the prayer “May love be stronger in me than the fear of the pain that comes with caring,” he pictures birds nesting in a tree which grows up and out of the roof of a modest cabin, itself enclosed in a glass jar.
McRoberts pens “May the reality that I cannot know the whole truth never keep me from bearing witness to what I can and do see”; Erickson envisions a light that never goes out, a lone candle burning bright even as it rests within a boat navigating stormy seas.
Initiating one of the most beautiful marriages within the book, McRoberts writes, “May I learn what it means to have enough and abandon the relentless pursuit of ‘more.’ ” On the opposite page, a modest boat rowing against a whirlpool; yet the whirlpool is cupped between divine palms. He has the whole world in his hands, the image seems to sing. He’s got everybody here in his hands.
The book offers contours and confines needed for the l practice of prayer. McRoberts reinforces helps such as prayer labyrinths, journaling, lament, meditation, and fasting.
The 40 days the book extends beats back one of the subtler temptations overshadowing our prayer lives. Most of us, by now, know better than to treat God as a wishing well. The initial awkwardness of prayer dies harder, as does discouragement when our first utterances after a long hiatus fall flat.
Forty days—the same time it took God to flood and re-furnish the earth, Moses to descend the mountain with holy tablets, Jesus to fully evade wilderness temptation—offers us a fighting chance to internalize prayerful rhythms and enter into what God is doing, rather than apply him like a second coat of paint across our lives.
For all its best practices, the book says most through McRoberts’ word pictures and Erickson’s literary imagery. Taken together, we begin to pray as birds capable of flight, yet sheltered beneath holy wings. We recognize the power of waves—and the even wilder power of the one who controls them. We identify ourselves as parts to a greater whole, all of it resting under God’s sovereign authority.
Historically, Protestants own a fear of religious imagery, something Erickson often addresses though anyone who sat through Sunday School beneath pictures of a fair-skinned Jesus, or worshipped in sanctuaries framed by the American and Christian flags, might suggest we possess our own icons. Erickson’s art encourages us not to pray to what you picture, but to pray for what you picture. For souls like me, the difference means everything.
I struggle mightily with prayer, believing God delights in everyone’s prayers but my own. Pictures of my deepest longings remind me that my dreams and aches for a better world tether me to a God who dreams bigger.
My imagination, stunted by sin and self-doubt, makes it hard to recognize the work of the Spirit, who constantly incarnates the divine and restores holyorder. McRoberts and Erickson help revive that imagination, showing me both the world as it is and as it would be if I truly believed prayers are answered and the stuff of earth can resemble the substance of heaven.