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Smith Couple Documents History of Prayer

Always and everywhere, people pray.

Prayer is a universal human practice that courses through every religion and culture, uniting people of all beliefs and backgrounds. The vast world of prayer, ranging from petition to adoration, thanksgiving to contemplation, giving rise to great poetry and prose, painting and sculpture, inspiring saints and sinners, artists and statesmen, is the subject of Prayer: A History, a new book written by Philip and Carol Zaleski, members of the Smith faculty. The book is due to be released in November from Houghton Mifflin.

Carol Zaleski, professor of religion, is the author of Otherworld Journeys and The Life of the World to Come. Philip Zaleski, her husband, is a research associate in the religion department, author of The Recollected Heart, and editor of the Best American Spiritual Writing series. The couple collaborated previously on The Book of Heaven.

“Focusing on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Carol and Philip Zaleski map the vast world of prayer from the sacred pipe to the rosary, from Neanderthal funerals to Pentecostal revivals,” according to the cover notes of Prayer: A History. “Examining prayer as petition, thanksgiving, adoration, contemplation, ecstasy, magic, and sacrifice, the Zaleskis probe the language of prayer, the fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future.”

Prayer: A History begins with the proclamation in Chapter I, “The Foundations of Prayer,” that “wherever one finds humans, one finds humans at prayer.” The Zaleskis map the evolution and transformation of this practice by exploring the roots of prayer in magic and sacrifice, prayer’s enduring influence upon such important cultural figures as Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Bill W., Mohandas K. Gandhi, and J.R.R. Tolkien, controversies regarding the efficacy of prayer, and prayer’s continuing and contentious role in public and private life. .

Regardless of people’s stance on the practice, as the Zaleskis observe, there is a “larger truth about prayer: that it alters the face of the world, revealing unnoticed harmonies and symmetries and knitting together the natural and social dimensions of our existence.”


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