A Book of Uncommon Prayer: An Anthology of Everyday Invocations
Edited by Matthew Vollmer
234 pages, $18.50
Reviewed by Pat Siebel
Let us, readers, give our thanks that when Matthew Vollmer, editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer: An Anthology of Everyday Invocations, learned to speak, he learned to pray; that he learned to think, question, and imagine, as he describes, “Who or What God might be.” Let us, readers, give our thanks that years later, sitting in a small North Carolina church, he listened to his stepmother-in-law pray, and that he heard something through her thick Southern accent:
[W]hen she repeated the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer… she pronounced words with a solemn and resonant precision. The languid flow of her “everyday voice”—in which words seemed to ooze from one into another—was now characterized by sharply defined pronunciation. It almost seemed as if the words of the prayer book were inhabiting—and thus, momentarily, possessing—her body.
Let us, readers, give thanks for Facebook, where Vollmer reached out to other writers in April 2013 announcing his new project: “I’m gonna get a whole bunch of talented folks involved to help write it, in much the way that the original [The Book of Uncommon Prayer] was written.” he explained. “Except these prayers are going to be for common things … ‘For Flight Attendants Giving Safety Speeches,’ ‘For Girls in Tanning Beds,’ ‘For Truck Drivers,’ ‘For the Sunshine Guy in the Airport Bathroom.’”
Contributors include Dan Albergotti, Bob Hicok, Caitlin Horrocks, Leslie Jamison, J. Robert Lennon, Rick Moody, Dylan Nice, Brian Oliu, and as fulfillment of a sort of ethical obligation to acknowledge the enormous collective quality here: . Writers were invited, in most cases, without regard/knowledge of their religious standing(s), Vollmer explains in the preface—“I simply wanted to see what happened when writers confronted the assignment of writing a prayer.”
What becomes certain, despite questions of an abstract Addressee, is something maybe not mystical or even spiritual, but something more like (a) presence. Something lingering, like words, drilled, embedded, and preserved—perhaps against our will—in our consciousnesses. TBoUP is fear, reverence, and disbelief, oftentimes all three at once; it’s an homage to the heavens’ Transcendental Signifier; it’s about meaning, finding it, losing it, then grappling with its void. But it’s also more. Laden with long, beautiful sentences—the kind we expect from Vollmer—ABoUP is a looking glass through porous borders, a prayer for the universally mundane: the acquaintance who has deleted their Facebook, the little guy driving behind oversized loads, the fifteen year-old girl on a cruise ship with her parents who, after suffering one too many Lampoonian moments, has pulled away from her family and found herself in the staff quarters with the family’s waiter.
Maybe You’d like to wait outside, LORD. You know what’s going to happen anyway. Stroll up and down the passageway; peek in on some of the other cabins while Deena and the waiter do what they must. Because You set them up for this, didn’t You, LORD? You answered Deena’s naïve plans. You delivered her right into the arms of this slimy waiter (Vladim? Really, LORD? Could You have created a more obvious villain than this?)
(“For a Teenage Girl Embarking Upon a Week-long Carnival Cruise with Her Parents” – George Bishop Jr.)
ABoUP can be bitter (in content, not reception), questioning what power(s) whatever Power we believe in may or may not possess. Other times, like in Bob Hicok’s “Prayer of the Agnostic,” it can be downright bleak and resentful.
LORD, thank you
for my doubt you exist and my certainty
I’m being watched by eyes of clouds and eyes
of doorknobs when I dream or masturbate
thank you for yo-yos while I’m at it,
and fog, and my wife, my wife,
who is not fog and believes in you
without question, whereas I wonder
if I could believe in question without you.
But it’s just as often full of ardent hope, playfulness, and understanding. The anthology thoroughly traverses the emotional spectrum from polar to polar, stopping at times to contemplate the in-betweens, maybes, and not-quite-sures. In its largest scope, it seems to be about becoming a better person, as traditional prayer often is—and praying for those unlikely to receive it. It’s a lesson in universal understanding—the question: “If you don’t believe in a divine presence or god and someone asks you to… what would happen?” The low point, if there must be one, is after page 234 where it seems to end.
(Note: All proceeds from A Book of Uncommon Prayer: An Anthology of Everyday Invocations go toward 826 Valencia—a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.)
 Full list of contributors includes: Dan Albergotti, Kate Angus, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Jensen Beach, A. K. Benninghofen, Nathan Blake, Gabriel Blackwell, George Bishop, Jr., Wendy Brenner, Nic Brown, Scott Cheshire, Jaime Clarke, Sean Conaway, Stanley Crawford, Michelle Kyoko Crowson, Christy Crutchfield, Weston Cutter, Chad Davidson, Gabe Durham, Mieke Eerkens, Clyde Edgerton, Matthew Gavin Frank, Amy Fusselman, Jonterri Gadson, V. V. Ganeshananthan, William Giraldi, Ani Gjika, Eve Grubin, John Haskell, Bob Hicok, Caitlin Horrocks, Marie Howe, Leslie Jamison, Lauren Jensen, Will Kaufman, Rob Kenagy, Lee Klein, Catherine Lacey, J. Robert Lennon, Ariel Lewiton, Nate Liederbach, Samuel Ligon, Robert Lopez, Courtney Maum, Aaron McCollough, Charles McLeod, Erika Meitner, Brenda Miller, Rick Moody, Liz Moore, Dylan Nice, Brian Oliu, Alicia Jo Rabins, Dawn Raffel, Wendy Rawlings, Ryan Ridge, Joseph Salvatore, Benjamin Samuel, Scott Sanders, Ravi Shankar, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, Amber Sparks, Sasha Steensen, Sarah Strickley, Ian Stansel, Christian TeBordo, Robert Uren, & Matthew Vollmer.