BOOK REVIEW: WHEN A PAGAN PRAYS
Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.
I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at least in part because of the author’s decision not to make retrospective changes to early chapters in which this “somewhat agnostic Druid took an academic interest in prayer” and had not yet found that this “wasn’t going to work”. The shift came when she began an experimental practice and stayed with it long enough for it to bear fruit. She was helped by Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of how prayer affects us: “when love and compassion are present in us, and we send those outwards, then that is truly prayer”. This allowed a move away from an originally limited framing of prayer as petitionary prayer to named Deity/Deities) into something more spacious and allowing. As a Druid, she was also partly influenced by the idea of kami – the spirits or phenomena revered in Japanese Shinto. As spirits of the elements in nature, or ancestors, or animals, creationary forces in the universe, part of nature and not separate from it, such beings seemed on a scale approachable through attunement, potentially available for conversation.
At night and on the edge of sleep, the author decided to see what happened when she opened her heart and sought peace with herself. She wasn’t seeking “grace or purity”, but “wholeness, wellness, connection”. Prayer became “an act of opening awareness”, of being open to the numinous, open to the divine. She stood before the unknown, holding her mind in a state of readiness, not expecting coherence, in a place that is perhaps beyond both doubt and belief. And she was thus willing, both to say “my prayer has had real and discernable effects for me” and that “this proves nothing”. In the end she says: “there are aspects of being that cannot be usefully discussed in terms of ‘realness’. That may be where the gods live”. A voice that at first has been buried, and then emerged in a hesitant way, can now celebrate re-connecting with the felt numinosity of early life, able to let go of the “defensive rationalism” that for a time played a necessary role.
The rational voice, the first voice, still has its place. This book isn’t all personal story. It considers the nature of prayer, the ethics of prayer, the social functions of prayer, and practicalities of prayer. It looks at the relationships between prayer and ritual, prayer and magic, and the idea of life itself as prayer if lived prayerfully. The author thinks through prayer as a concept (or set of related concepts), and its context, and how most effectively and ethically to pray. This voice too is an honest voice. It does not make assumptions, or hypnotise the reader into agreement. We are asked to think and reflect. In the end, the first voice becomes the servant of the second. It’s questioning both demands and enables the integrity of the author’s personal experiment in prayer. The resulting fruits of practice, and the conclusions of the book, are owed to the presence of both voices, and the author’s willingness to be loyal to them both through a time when they were as yet unreconciled.