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Mary Karr on prayer: "Just try it"

Fans of the poet and memoirist Mary Karr will want to read this lengthy interview in the Paris Review -- it's not new, but it's new to me (thanks, Twitter!). I reviewed Karr's third and most recent memoir, Lit, for Commonweal, and blogged about it here. In that book she recounts her struggles with addiction and recovery and her conversion to the Catholic faith. This interview is titled "The Art of Memoir," and Karr has many interesting things to say about that form (as well as about poetry), and about how she goes about writing -- something other writers always want to know. But even more interesting, to me, is what she has to say about how and why she prays -- and how prayer and writing are connected for her.

"I ask God what to write," Karr says. "I know that sounds insane, but I do. I say: What do you want me to say?.... I’ll get stuck and I’ll just say, Help me."

Karr goes into some detail about her personal prayer routine -- it's the kind of reading that makes me want to brush up my own prayer life. (She's also proudly vulgar, sometimes right in the middle of a sentence about prayer, so delicate sensibilities beware.) And she has a suggestion for anyone who doubts her sanity: "To skeptics I say, Just try it. Pray every day for thirty days. See if your life gets better. If it doesn’t, tell me I’m an asshole."

This is the part I like best; the part I identify with most:

KARR: Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, so I attend to the work and kind of forget myself. It’s strange, though—I know praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?

INTERVIEWER: No.

KARR: Me neither.

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Wonderful stuff, thank you!  Wish I were clever enough to comment on her art but I am not.  As for prayer I have often found it to be an effective way of temporarily letting go of responsibities I was clearly unable to mangage either at the moment or ever.  It seems the prayer humbled me sufficiently to recognize the arrogance that led to believe I was more than I am in the first place.  I am convinced prayers are always answered if only in allowing us to slow down enough to consider another possiblity.

It's interesting to read about other people's prayer lives.  I pray every day, using an Ignatian kind of imaginative prayer that's a conversation.

People react to the advice of St Paul to "pray always" , saying that it is impossible. What Paul means is pray whenever you can. Because this is where life is and the Spirit of God is. Karr emits an authenticity that comes from prayer. She does not wax delinquent about stealing pears. She has real issues where she suffered through and comes to the certainty that God is always prevalent and relevant. Her rhetoric helps her story. Rather than her art creating another reality.

I try to always express gratitude to God for all the blessings He has and does shower me with, and I try to temper that gratitude with my awareness that spiritual and/or physical catastophe are never far away...

What an ability to invent metaphors!

I hope she does write that book on prayer one of these days.

"People tend to judge a faith’s value based on its dogma, which ignores religion in practice. It’s like believing if you watch enough porn or read enough gynecology books, you’ll know about pussy. For me, being a Catholic is a set of activities. Certain dogma seems nuts to me too. I’m not the Pope’s favorite Catholic."

Not how I might have put it--I'm a cold-weather Midwestern Yankee--but resonates with me. Catholicism gave me a rich daily prayer life, ways to "do" for people whom I can't help in any other way. 

A friend was complaining about his boss the other day, one of those prosperity Gospel Christians (thank you, God, for making me rich, white and straight) who brooks no argument, no negative thoughts, and who wants to remake reality as she sees it, not how it is. I told him I found Catholicism an anodyne to that kind of crap because the Church validates my own belief that so much of life is appalling, and we're constantly reminding  God of our suffering with lit candles, spiky monstrances that look like migraine headache auras, perpetual novenas, Stations of the Cross that take you through the excruciating steps of the Roman execution of an innocent man, icons and statues of bleeding martyrs, woolen scapulars; if you have a prayer list going, chances are you'll immolate it.

I think he thought I was just being funny, but I was serious as a heart attack.