Help Thanks WowHelp, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
by Anne Lamott

I’ve read some of Anne Lamott’s other books before. Reading Lamott isn’t so much about learning something new, but about grounding myself more firmly in what I really ought to remember but too easily forget. Especially when life is a whirlwind of such craziness that I can’t catch my breath or get my feet on steady ground, especially when it’s too noisy to do much listening, that’s when I need to be reminded of where the center is. Lamott’s bluntness, her boiled-to-bare-bones directness, her earth-rooted faith, all help bring me up short, to make me pause, take a few deep breaths, and say, “Okay, God, let’s be quiet and then start over again.”

This past weekend was the annual women’s retreat. Women from several parishes spend the time from Friday night to Sunday morning in the retreat house on a lovely hillside overlooking one of the Finger Lakes. After five retreats, I’ve learned to know where to find my best nourishment. Not in the constant round of scheduled lectures and discussions, although I accept that other women find these edifying. But for me, there’s already too much noise, too much talk, too many voices coming between my ears and God’s voice. I remember how the monks found prayer through silence, and that’s what I’m at the lake to enjoy. Not just no phones, radios, or televisions blaring noise at me, but as little as possible in the way of human voices at all. To simply not be distracted, to have no demands at all for this short space, that’s what I want.

It sounds anti-social, but I don’t mean it that way. I smile and nod at the women I pass in the building and on the grounds. But I don’t want to talk about things. To retreat is to walk away from all that usually pushes and pulls at our attention, to be set at liberty from lesser things, just for now. It’ll all be waiting for us when we come back out, but just for now, let’s stick with basics.

I don’t go on retreat with heavy edifying books. I’m there to be quiet and listen. But I need some book, some short simple book, something to “talk me down” from the noisy ledge I’ve somehow gotten myself stranded on. I need a book which will gently remind me of a few basic ground rules, the taproots of prayer, and then back off and leave me to get on with it. This year, it was Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  This was a voice that used few words, simple words, to say a few simple things.

  • A nun I know once told me she kept begging God to take her character defects away from her. After years of this prayer, God finally got back to her: I’m not going to take anything away from you, you have to give it to Me.
  • Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic.
  • If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.
  • Prayer begins with stopping in our tracks, with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.
  • Grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.

Starting the weekend with this book was a good way to clean out my cluttered brain, to throw out all the accumulated junk that’s been rattling around in there for weeks or months. When I wasn’t quite ready yet to talk with God, I could begin by talking with Anne about our mutually remembered past experiences of talking with God, getting a grasp on basics, recalling how it feels when it’s real, recognizing when I’m praying vs. when I’m just acting out the motions of praying. After a few quiet hours, the silence began to hold more for me than the book, and I set it aside, went out walking on the hillside, and ended up finding my way into the arms I sought.

Here’s a question I don’t really know how to answer: Why does a book of this kind draw me closer to God, making me desire his friendship in prayer more strongly, while the carefully prepared lectures distance me from God, pushing me away and distracting me with anxiety? Why do I like best a book which is only used casually and then easily discarded for better things?