The Prayer Wheel [Review]

April 26, 2018 — Leave a comment

 

A True-pointing Compass
for the Journey

A Review of 

The Prayer Wheel:
A Daily Guide To Renewing Your Faith With A Rediscovered 
Spiritual Practice

Patton Dodd, Jana Riess and David Van Biema

Hardback: Convergent, 2018
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
 

Abbreviated from the review in 
our Lent 2018 magazine issue. 
SUBSCRIBE NOW,
and be sure to receive our next issue… 

 

A fulfilling prayer life can seem like a white whale to many Christians: faraway, elusive, hard to line up in your sights. If the ideal and reality of prayer fail to match up frequently, disciples tend to turn their faces toward one of three sources of resolution. There’s innovation— inventing a new acrostic or mnemonic, treating an obscure Biblical prayer as the key that will unlock all heavenly doors. There’s tradition—planting yourself in ancient gardens such as lectio divina, or forging personal habits, custom-made to bring prayer to life. Saddest of all is attrition, when spiritual fruit dies on the vine because a Christian never grows comfortable in prayer or assumes God is too cruel or too cool to answer.


In an effort to keep the third reality at bay, a veteran team of religion writers has created a prayer guide where the other two—innovation and tradition—meet. Using the fresh discovery of an ancient spiritual aid, The Prayer Wheel longs to bring timeworn Christian wisdom to bear on present-tense predicaments with prayer. The book is dedicated to “all those who pray—or would like to try.” The authors are something of a dream team, a lineup that could keep the score close in any 3-on-3 match of religion writers. Dodd’s byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Christianity Today; Riess is a well-regarded author and Religion News Service columnist; Van Biema covered the God beat at Time magazine for a decade.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the genesis of their collaboration is quite journalistic in nature. The authors detail the 2015 unveiling of monastic manuscripts in a New York gallery. Tucked away within an impressive German rendering of the Gospels was a surprise, a treasure map of sorts. Scrawled “on a normally blank protective sheet before the title page,” was a drawing of concentric circles, each ring bearing seven phrases that lead to the true center, the word “Deus” (3). It was a Prayer Wheel. The authors traced this find to its time and tradition, a Middle Ages practice of realizing Biblical ideas through geometric images. To the modern eye, the Prayer Wheel might seem inscrutable, “like a message from Middle Earth, or an ancient board game” (1).

The authors get their hands dirty before asking us to do the same. Each path they clear through the wheel comes with Scriptural and historical context, as well as a sample prayer that is more rich and expressive than most devotionals yield. The language of these prayers is priestly and creative, perhaps much more so than readers will find their own breathy, impromptu utterances. But it is still rooted in the stuff of earth, in real longing and real concern and does not make a show of prayer, as Jesus warned.

A prayer to see God everywhere longs to find wonder “in the starfish fingers of a newborn” (37); another confesses that “resentment sticks to me like an old habit,” a sentiment that rings too true (59). A prayer through Romans 8—included in a later, valuable section on praying the Scriptures— describes forgiveness as “the white robe you wrap me in” and grace as “your first order of business” (159). “I’m supposed to spread mercy like confetti at a parade, because that’s what love demands, and I want to love you with all my heart, mind and strength,” one prayer reads (179). Only the most inventive reader would dream up those words, but every reader will want to live them.






The prayers herein are personal and also global. They are offered up for people we often take for granted—as in a prayer of comfort that touches caregivers and the lonely (91), They are willing to become undignified and unabashed in their praise: “To me—I’ll just say it, God—your name stands for everything beautiful!” (135). Text surrounding these prayers removes the stinger and finds the honey in intimidating concepts such as piety (100) and explicates easily-confused terms such as “the fear of the Lord” and “wisdom” (116, 187, respectively).

Even this connective tissue between paths glistens with beauty, finding the poetry in an act like baptism: “When we rise again, wet with grace, it’s a foreshadowing of the glory of resurrection” (46). Knowing readers could take many paths through the wheel on their way home, the authors dedicate their last page to possible “next steps,” to take the guidance offered here and bend it into shape using their own creativity.

Whether it is helpful for a season, or sparks a lifelong fascination for aspiring spiritual cartographers, The Prayer Wheel is a true-pointing compass. It holds potential to lead believers from their wit’s end to true joy and comfort in prayer. The road a reader takes is up to them: it can be simple or scenic, but these roads all lead home.

 

Abbreviated from the review in 
our Lent 2018 magazine issue. 
SUBSCRIBE NOW,
and be sure to receive our next issue… 

 

Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. His work is concerned with the intersection of faith, culture and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen and find more of his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites