Praying for Strangers
Berkley, 2011 $24.95. 336 pages.
In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Simone Weil writes, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him[/her]: ‘What are you going through?’ It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a [hu]man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.” This love, according to Weil, is foremost a matter of loving, sustained attention.
This cultivation of attention, this loving seeing of the invisible, runs throughout River Jordan’s nonfiction work Praying for Strangers. On a family skiing trip, Jordan made a New Year’s resolution: to pray for a stranger each day for a whole year, a year when her two sons were being deployed, one to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan. The book chronicles her journey of shifting her focus from herself to others, a journey toward greater consciousness, toward opening her eyes each day to a special stranger, to some other. Soon after beginning her journey, Jordan feels inexplicably led to tell some of these strangers that she’s praying for them, a revelation that consistently meets with replies such as, “How did you know …?” and “Funny you should choose me …” The book is filled with stories of small, critical moments of unexpected connection.
These moments bubble up even when Jordan doesn’t feel like praying for strangers–for instance, when she has the f lu and decides to take a day off from her resolution, venturing out only for “that achy-all-over, sniff ly, sneezy medicine.” Despite her lapsed intentions, a side trip to the dairy aisle reveals her stranger, and before she knows it she is turning aside and asking the woman her name–Margaret. “In the grumpiest, most unenthusiastic voice you can imagine,” Jordan writes, “I say, ‘Margaret, look–every day I pray for a stranger that crosses my path, and today you’re my special stranger.'” Of course, this is precisely what Margaret needed to hear.
The book carries a litany of faces, some with names–a collection of passing moments and tiny miracles. There’s the Chekhov-reading desk clerk at the run-down motel in the middle of nowhere, the woman at the rest stop who’d lost her son two months before, the coffee-shop teen asking prayers for her bipolar mother, the crying infant Jordan rocks to sleep. There’s Rachel, who is juggling a job and a sick father; Kate, who has health problems of her own; Ronnie, who can’t believe he’s been chosen; Sandy Lee, who’s recovering from heart surgery. Jordan tells these stories of small miracles with dry humor and a selfdeprecating style that seem fitting for a shy, private, Southern Gothic novelist. She does not go in for the showy, public, “hoodooyouvoodoo” brand of spirituality–for her, faith has always been a private matter–and writing a book about prayer was never on her list of expected endeavors. She also does not believe that this attention, this ability to intuit need in a stranger’s face, marks her as separate or specially gifted. Perhaps it is this unassuming air that makes Praying for Strangers so readable and relatable.
I am not the only reader to find this a relatable book–the paperback edition I read includes a book group study guide and letters from readers, many of whom confess they wrote before even finishing the book. The testimonials have a common vibe: “I never write to authors, but …,” “I can’t believe I’m writing to you, but …,” and so forth. I suspect this book touches some deep human impulse, that people long for the intimacy of spiritual experience shared.
Praying for Strangers is, at its heart, a book about human connection. It’s a story about breaking the bubble of privacy and personal space that we all create, a story about overcoming the fear of interrupting strangers’ lives. We’re all hurting, Jordan says, and we all have stories to share. Seeing the stranger who needs prayer is simply a matter of opening our eyes to see these hurts and stories. Jordan observes that the power of prayer crumbles the carefully constructed masks we put on and leaves us open and vulnerable to one another–a power, perhaps, that makes us more human.
I don’t know if I’ll take up praying for strangers á la River Jordan after reading this book. In some ways, this reading was an eerie experience as time and again I found Jordan so like myself. But I feel as if I have to find my own call to human connection, my own unique way of slowing down and paying attention in a frenetic world. At any rate, this book inspires me to give more of myself to the world, or, in Jordan’s words, to dig in and get my spiritual hands dirty. While there are times when the tone of this 300-page tome begins to feel precious and saccharine, if a move to action isn’t enough to recommend a book, I don’t know what is.