The Path of Prayer: Reflections on Prayer and True Stories of How It Affects Our Lives


Sophy Burnham's unique, humanistic approach to the spiritual has inspired millions of readers. Now in this luminous, yet down-to-earth and practical book, she explores the universal meaning of prayer and its practice and shows how prayer can help those of all faiths-or none-to resolve doubts and anxieties, find comfort during troubled times, and realize their deepest longings, thoughts, and dreams. With characteristic grace, Burnham shares her personal observations and experience with prayer, as well as true ...

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Sophy Burnham's unique, humanistic approach to the spiritual has inspired millions of readers. Now in this luminous, yet down-to-earth and practical book, she explores the universal meaning of prayer and its practice and shows how prayer can help those of all faiths-or none-to resolve doubts and anxieties, find comfort during troubled times, and realize their deepest longings, thoughts, and dreams. With characteristic grace, Burnham shares her personal observations and experience with prayer, as well as true stories of people who have found answers-sometimes miracles-through prayer. It is short enough to read in one sitting, deep enough to peruse again and again. Filled with suggestions and prayers from many traditions, this engaging volume provides strength and direction at just the time many people are searching for answers.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Path of Prayer evolved from Sophy Burnham's response to a request about how to respond to intense personal crisis. Her heartfelt exploration of the healing power of prayer cites numerous personal stories and fascinating spiritual sidebars.
Publishers Weekly
In this fervent but unfocused primer, prayer is more therapeutic protocol than divine commandment. Drawing on the writings of sages, unconventional (and some might say dubious) scientific studies and many true-life parables of supplications miraculously answered, Burnham (A Book of Angels) reassures us that all prayers great (cure this cancer) and small (untie this necklace) go straight to God's ears. Nominally a Christian, Burnham has a broadly ecumenical but unspecific idea of God-a.k.a. "Creative Element," "force of the universe" and "tachyon energy"-and her concept of prayer is similarly unstructured and abstract. Prayer can be the familiar hands-clasped entreaty (for which she provides tips on posture and warm-up breathing exercises), but it can be virtually any other act-listening to music, drinking coffee, washing the dishes-done with a pure heart. Prayer taps into the mystical healing power of a cosmos that is raptly attentive to our needs, but demands little from us except emotional sincerity. Devotees of Burnham's free-form New Age spirituality will like this approach, but religious traditionalists who think that specific beliefs and rituals are important to God may not. (Sept. 12) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142196267
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Sophy Burnham, an award-winning author, is best known for her classic bestseller, A Book of Angels. A prolific speaker and writer on faith and the spiritual path, her work has been translated into twenty languages and has sold more than one million copies.

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I have a friend, Charlie, who was sent on assignment to the island of Bikini. The island is about 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii, and standing there you'd think there is absolutely nothing around it whatsoever, except eternal and unending ocean swells. The island is deserted. Charlie found himself walking on the glistening white sands of an empty and achingly beautiful beach, the sea unfurling itself ceaselessly at his feet. As he walked along, he saw two seashells, each the perfect mirror image of the other, sister shells, lying side by side on the sand. He gave them a nod of passing interest and walked on. A little later he saw two other seashells lying side by side, this pair different from the first but again each one the mirror of the other. He went on and saw a third set of twins, and then a fourth, and by now he was feeling uneasy with this mysterious duplication, and wishing for some signs of untidy civilization when he spotted...two Coke bottles lying side by side on the empty, glittering white beach.

Charlie is a spiritual man. He decided that the pairs came as a sign that we are not supposed to live alone. We are supposed to have a partner in our lives. So he got married.

Some years have passed, and now he believes that the message of the seashells was not about marriage. He thinks it meant...that we are not alone. There is something out there watching us, watching over us. We link up with it through prayer.

All over the world people are praying-billions of people praying. They walk down the street praying silently, or they kneel in churches, bow in mosques and temples, bathe themselves in sacred rivers. They make prostrations, walk on pilgrimages, circumambulate their holy sites. They ring bells, light candles, turn prayer wheels, chant songs, sing mantras, fly flags, float prayers down rivers on lotus blossoms or drop their folded written prayers into a God Box or push them into the cracks of a sacred wall. They burn incense sticks that send their prayers up with the smoke (prayers in almost every culture go "up").

If you were born without knowing anything at all about prayer, do you think that you would pray? I say yes. I think it's integral to the human heart; we cannot help ourselves. We think. We pray.

According to one study by the Princeton Religious Research Center, nine out of ten Americans pray.

Ninety-five percent of Americans believe that their prayers are answered, according to a Life magazine Gallup Poll.

A 1996 Time/CNN poll of 1,004 Americans found that 82 percent believed in the healing power of prayer and 64 percent thought doctors should pray with those patients who request it-and some do!

"To exclude God from psychiatric consultation," Dr. Arthur Kornhaber of Lake Placid, New York, told Newsweek, "is a form of malpractice."

Indeed, so many studies indicate that people deprived of spiritual meaning live shorter, more unhealthy lives than those who follow some religious path-any path-that you'd think the health insurance companies would ask applicants about their spiritual practices as well as about their histories of smoking, drinking, and disease.

Dozens of hospitals are studying the effects of prayer on epilepsy, leukemia, strokes, cancer, headaches, heart disease, substance abuse, and a host of other ailments. The National Institutes of Health are funding no fewer than ten studies on prayer. Meanwhile, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of studies have been performed regarding the effect of prayer on everything from bacteria and yeast to shrimp, mice, seeds, and red blood cells.

They show that prayer provides statistically significant results.

Nonetheless, we have an ambivalent relationship to prayer.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the Supreme Court, open their sessions with prayer. Yet allowing children to engage in prayer in the public schools is controversial (strange inconsistency)-and this despite one British study that demonstrates that schoolchildren who prayed did better on tests and in school overall than those who did not!

You would think it sheer hubris, therefore, for me to tackle the subject of prayer, when there is already so much written on the subject. Even to speak of it as a "path" is both true and, paradoxically, a misnomer, because in a certain sense there is no path! A path implies a well-marked starting point, a journey that passes through various landscapes, with maps and landmarks-this apple tree, that stone wall, this cliff or cleft of rock-and always with the tracks of those who've gone before bending down the grass. A path implies a finish line, the attainment of which brings a thrill of triumphant satisfaction. You have arrived!

But in the case of prayer there is no fixed starting point, no apple tree, no cliff, and not even the same common end point. Each person finds his or her own way. You set off wherever you are, in your own authenticity, and usually (certainly in the beginning) that means with suffering, confusion, tears, fear, doubt. You pray, you stop, you go about your daily life, then remember once again to pray....Sometimes you have one experience while praying, the next time another, and although you may be treading in the footsteps of others, there is no beaten grass to indicate it. Is any activity less understood than prayer?

I pray all the time. Yet still I question it. What is prayer, and why do we do it? Is praying fixed into our DNA? Are prayers answered-and what of those petitions that are not? Are there good and better ways to pray? Or places or rituals or times? And to what are we praying, anyway? Or to whom? What sort of god do we address?

I pray, and yet I find myself, at times and against my will, a skeptic-dismayed and amused that my mind can hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously and swing easily between the poles of faith and doubt. Then I remember John Donne's saying that "to come to a doubt and to a debatement of any religious duty is a Voice of God in our conscience. Would you know the Truth? Doubt, and then you will inquire."

Or I think of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways...."

In recent years I have taken courses at Wesley Theological Seminary. I have studied at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation to become a one-on-one spiritual director or guide. Therefore, I've been exposed to considerable discussion about prayer. I don't remember anyone talking about prayer when I was a child, while almost everyone seems to do so now.

I write this book for several reasons: first for others, because several people have recently asked me to teach them about prayer, and secondly for myself, in order to put down and somehow make sense of what I've learned so far. I write for all those who wonder about prayer, and how and why we do it, and whether we are praying to an outside deity or to our own thoughts, and why those rudimentary prayers of petition would be answered anyway, and what is best to pray for. I write for those who, like myself, have wondered what we are doing in our lives, what it's all about. I write for those who are afraid of what happens when we die.

Oh, there are lots of questions! If anyone can learn from these reflections, or take comfort when he is suffering, or be reminded in troubled moments that she is not alone, then this book will be counted a success. I write for those who, like me, feel themselves always a beginner in the practice, always starting over, always learning the same lessons again and again, always struggling to make connection more firmly to the divine.

These stories are offered shyly, recognizing how little we understand of the Great Mystery, but they are offered in love, in joy, in hope that they will give encouragement to others who may have some of the same doubts and questions that have consumed me in my life. I wish the very rhythms of the sentences themselves, the music of the words, will soothe a hurt, caress a soul, and feed an unnamed need. But I think for that I'd have to be someone like the 19th-century Indian poet Hafiz, who wrote some 693 songs of joy to God and who described a poet as "someone who can pour light into a spoon, then raise it to nourish your beautiful, parched, holy mouth."

In the book that follows, at the end of each chapter is a prayer from one of the major traditions. Read these prayers. Let their words sink into your soul, and remember that au fond the prayers of each religion are the same. Why would that be? I think it is because all of us humans are the same, no matter our culture or our religious differences. We all have the same needs and wants and longing, all set in us by God.

Chapter 1
Confessions, Confusions

When I was a child, I suppose no more than three or four, I knelt beside my bed each night, hands folded sweetly. On one side of me knelt my sister and on the other my mother. She led us through our prayers:

There are four corners on my bed,
There are four angels at my head.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
Bless the bed I sleep on.

And then:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take

In addition, we recited the Lord's Prayer, rattling it off without either thought or understanding, and then we began our litany of "God bless Mummy and Daddy and-"

Now came the fun, as we named everyone and everything we could remember-our aunts and grandparents, the part-time baby-sitter, the ducks (each one by name) and the two horses and the chickens (not by name) and the squirrel or a flight of birds we might have seen that day, and the oak trees and the fallen log we played on in the woods. We went on and on, while our mother prodded us, "Come on."

Finally she would interrupt-"All right, that's enough!"-and toss our giggling little bodies into bed and kiss us on the forehead, turn out the light, and be done with the day!

My sister and I settled into the drowning, stonelike sleep of the pure in heart, knowing we were loved and blessed and never doubting that a magical source of the universe watched over us. How could we doubt? We saw it for ourselves. We lived in the country, and as children we could sense the devas, fairies, elves, and spirits that lived in the shrubs and grasses around us. Each patch of fairy moss was an enchanted tiny landscape, trembling with mystery. The wood-spirits of my childhood were benign, and I think this early sense of goodness, safety, and love pervaded our little brain cells and perhaps has influenced my later vision of life. We talked to trees, to grass, to rocks-a river of prayer, although we never thought of it as that, for prayer as such had rigid definitions.

Mind, I was never taught either in church or at home exactly how to pray-not in any sophisticated sense.

"Have you said your prayers?" my mother would ask, in the same tone and with as much interest as "Have you brushed your teeth?" or, if we were settling into the car for a trip, "Did you go to the john?"

Praying was a duty, like wearing clean underclothes. ("Make sure you have on clean underwear in case you're in an accident," she would say; and, while remembering the advise I wonder, Did she say the same thing to my brother, or was this admonition reserved only for the girls?)

Praying was a manner of speech: "You'd better pray that will come out of the carpet."

It was a subject of curiosity: "Did you know the Hopi Indians believe their prayers and dances make the Earth turn?" The idea evoked a certain superior and tolerant amusement at these less enlightened "primitive" people, who hadn't had the good fortune, as we had, to learn the gravitational laws that keep the stars and planets in place.

My mother, of course, had her own ferocious relationship to prayer. When she was a little girl, her mother (my grandmother) would turn on the mischievous child. "Down on your knees!" she would thunder. "And pray to God to forgive you for that act!" My mother would have to kneel before her righteous mother, hands folded, and pray for God's forgiveness.

No wonder she could not teach me how to pray. I was lucky with such an upbringing that she didn't pass on to me that unforgiving image of God and prayer!

Whatever prayer was, it was not expected to hold a central place in our lives.

We went to church each Sunday at the lovely, soft, redbrick Episcopal (low-church) structure that had served that community since 1742. We bowed our heads before a deity that no one talked about particularly. The congregation raced through the litany like coursers after a hare, and I had the feeling even as a child that when we reached the triumphant end, and everyone tumbled out of the pews in an explosion of noisy greetings, the grown-ups high above our heads laughing and complimenting one another on new hats or good golf scores the day before, or inviting one another home for a prelunch drink, that we had reached the true purpose of Morning Service: social intercourse.

If praying was what had brought us to church, it was forgotten in the general social din. And maybe that's all right; maybe that's one aim of church-to bind us in unity, with unity, comm-unity. But speaking for myself, church didn't teach me much about prayer. And I was left to grapple with this lack for many years, to find my own way, as I suspect is the norm for most of us.

By our teens my siblings and I were, of course, well read in both the Old and New Testaments-on the theory that anyone aspiring to a true understanding of history and literature required strong grounding in the Bible, the cornerstone of Western culture.

But prayer, our spiritual heart?

That was left for our own explorations.

Sometimes I went to a Roman Catholic church with my friend, Kitty. The mass (as the service was called) was different from my tradition-performed in Latin for one thing, quite incomprehensible. It was a good show, with its incense and gaudy priestly robes. When the congregation filed forward for Communion, Kitty hissed, "Sit down! You're not Catholic."

I wondered vaguely about a God that decided who deserved to be enfolded in His grace and who did not. According to Catholic doctrine of that time, only those saved by Christ-reborn, baptized, and confirmed-could go to heaven. All others-including those people unlucky enough to have lived in the thousands of millennia before the birth of Jesus and those who had made the mistake of being born on foreign continents like Asia or Africa-were doomed, poor fools, for having come at the wrong place or time.

It didn't seem quite fair.

In my freshman year of college, my brain awash in the heady skepticism of intellectual pursuit, I lost my faith. Did I believe in God? I could find no more reason for there being a God than reason for there being none. (I meant the God of my childhood, the grandfatherly Renaissance portrait-God in the masculine image of man.) I didn't much care for church worship anymore, which I found dry ritual. Nonetheless, still subject to that twinge of guilt that denotes a not-yet-atrophied conscience and concerned by the suddenness of this loss of faith-this enlarging of perspective-I made one last, halfhearted attempt to go back to my innocent old ways. I went to see the Protestant minister at the college church.

I sat in a wing chair, facing him across his paper-laden desk.

"I've lost my faith," I confessed.

He twirled a pencil miserably between his fingers. "You must have faith," he intoned.

I stared at him in contemptuous surprise. "If I hadn't lost my faith," I wanted to retort sarcastically, "I'd still have it." Instead I waited to see if he had anything more to add. He stared down at his desk, not meeting my eyes-and today, years later, I wonder if he was not going through his own crisis of confidence. He must have felt some sense of inadequacy in the face of this determined young woman.

"Yes. Well. Thank you."

I left, and that, tra-la, was the end of my Christian church attendance for many a year. I left God, or anyway I stopped thinking much about a spiritual dimension, and when I met the atheist who was to become my husband, my admiration for his sharp intellect finished off the job. I claimed a wishy-washy agnostic atheism.

On the other hand, I could not stop praying. These were usually petitions, which was at the time my sole definition of "prayer." I'd been doing it since babyhood and found the habit hard to break.

It was humiliating. What was I doing? Talking to myself?

When I was in trouble, I would slip into the dusky, trembling silence of an empty church to kneel in a pew, hands folded. I would pour out my heart to a God I did not believe in-or even like, if you consider the historical personage. I would explain my fears and anguish, crying into the void, against my will, "Oh, help."

The odd thing was, I always came away feeling better, except for the tinge of guilt at having once again (like a reformed alcoholic once more going off the wagon) given in to prayer!

Sometimes I would bargain.

"If you give me this, dear God," I implored a deity I refused to acknowledge, addressing Him, moreover, with unwarranted intimacy, given our lack of relationship, "I promise I'll do XYZ....Please help my husband keep his job. Help us stay in this apartment. Help my little girl get into this school. Help us....Help me...."

Somehow things always worked out. Did I give any credit to my prayers? Of course not! They were merely the expression of my own weakness, and I disliked myself all the more for not even being able, like my husband, to live up to my own convictions of atheistic nihilism.

But that's only part of the story, a half-truth of my experience in those days, for even as an inadequate agnostic, I longed for understanding. I prayed to understand. I wished for it on the first evening star. I asked for it, eyes closed, while pulling at chicken wishbones.

Understand what?

All of it! Understand everything.

It may have been my consuming prayer for nearly 15 years, until one day with a surge of joy, I grasped (the bolt from the blue, oh, glory!) that the goal could never be reached-and how wonderful! How thrilling that my prayer was not "answered" (except with this understanding, which at the time I did not consider an "answer"); for if I understood everything, I would lose the mystery-and I rejoiced in that realization like a dog rolling in dead seagull guts, undone by that simple fact: How fine life is, how rich, how inexorable, how limitless, how chaotic and orderly, how violent and peaceful, how right that we should be utterly at the mercy of the Unknown! In the course of my life I have met many fascinating men and women and studied with enlightened masters or gurus. I have experienced extraordinary visions and mystical moments, some of which I've written about in earlier books. Nonetheless, it seems I am always at the beginning of prayer, as innocent and inept as a child.

Whenever I begin a project, I begin with prayer. For every beginning is born in fear and hope. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin this one with prayer, however difficult it is to do so publicly. Listen: My prayers are private. I don't like to voice the silent, secret yearnings of my heart, those intimate communications with an energy that is mysterious, intelligent, majestic, and yet so delicately personal, so immediate, so loving (wings bend brooding over us) that we cannot even name it. "God," we say, for want of a better word.

My prayers are unspoken, private, but with what words I have, here is my sense of longing as we begin this exploration:

O God, Delight of my being, O my Beloved: Fill my mouth with Your words, that each person reading them may be relieved of hurt, fear, doubt....Help me to grow so open that I may see with the eyes of God, hear with the ears of God, love with the heart of God, speak with the words of God-You in me and I in You, in the service of all people, everywhere....And may each person find the longings of her heart, if it be for her highest good....I thank You for Your most tender care....

Something like that. Only it would have no words.

Not all of us will express our prayers with such romantic fervor, and that's the first and most important thing to say about prayer itself: that we each find our own way, our own words, our own deity, and anything I have to say about prayer must accommodate and shift and shape to fit your perfect mold.

And now we come to pain.

Why does praying seem so often to begin with pain? With broken minds and hearts? We are vessels of unspoken hurt. Is there anyone alive who has not suffered? Or wondered what to do? Life is full of cares, for no sooner do we love a thing than we find ourselves afraid of losing it, and the more precious it appears to us, the worse is our anguish at the idea of its loss. I think that all of life is formed of change and loss: the loss of our children, the loss of our parents, the loss of homes with their comfortable walls and floors, the loss of dreams and ambitions, of jobs, the loss of status or youth or health, and repeatedly the loss of self-esteem, the loss of those whom we have loved-wives, husbands, mothers, brothers, a good dog or cat, or friend. And always, hanging over us dangles the unnamed loss that will be produced by our own death-the loss of a self we may hardly have gotten to know before it will be extinguished (not me!), and with it the subjective loss of this entire thrilling world.

What do we do when we are hurting or in need? We fight our pain and disappointment. We deny it, ignore it, or howl in despair and simple outrage. At some point we try to tackle the problem by willpower and determination. We decide to take control, to change the situation to our advantage and make things come out right, the way they're supposed to be. With all our mind and heart we try to make everything turn out the way we want.

We create a new family schedule to brake a teenager's downward spiral. Or we commit to increased hours of weekend work, when we're already over our head with a failing company. We resolve to spend more time on a "relationship," ("we'll make it work!") or we volunteer to march for world peace. We struggle to bring order out of the chaos of our lives.

Who was it that said, "When humans make plans, God laughs"? Or there's that other antique saying, known in several languages: "Man proposes, God disposes."

Do our frantic efforts work? Fat chance.

Some people try to push the painful situation into submission by drive and hard work, while others take to alcohol or drugs, in an effort either to dull the unwanted sensations or else to vault over them into some exalted, happy state (using spirits to reach the spiritual); and for a short time this course may work. Some people plot vengeance against their enemy. Others stuff down their hurt and anger. They escape into books and films or into hard physical activity and athletics. They drive fast cars to forget their problems, or else they lunge into work or food or chocolate or sex, or even into committing atrocities. Still others erupt in fear and bellow in rage and frustration at the world or at their mother and father or at the God they don't believe in anyway. At fate. Sometimes we lash out in our betrayal, crying for revenge, instituting lawsuits, demanding at least justice if we can't have peace of mind. We substitute righteousness for happiness, though only mercy can make injustice just.

What else do we do? We talk to a friend, to a counselor, or to our private journal. We join a twelve-step program, or perhaps we take our tender, troubled hearts to an astrologer, a medium, a healer or shaman. Just talking helps. We seek respite through massage or Reiki or other forms of loving touch. We dance. We pour our pain into the creative arts. And all these solutions help, but at those times when we cannot take another step, we're forced to pray.

There's the story of a man I know who refused to pray. He was struggling against an addiction and watching as his life unraveled around him, with an impending bankruptcy, divorce, loss of children and home. People kept saying to him, "Pray, pray." But he was prideful and would not. One day a friend took him aside.

"Do you know what the ox does when it's too heavily laden?"

"No, what?"

"It falls on its knees and refuses to move," he said.

The man thought, "Well, if the ox can fall on its knees, I guess I can." That morning in the shower, where he knew he wouldn't be seen, he very quickly-tick-tock-dropped to one knee (help!), and came back up again. Oddly, he felt better, and the next day while in the shower he dropped onto both knees and stayed there a little longer to say his prayer, there, where no one would see him. After that, he found he could pray at night before climbing into bed or in the morning on first opening his eyes. Dropping to his knees even for a moment opened the gate to prayer, to submission to something higher, to the universal energy field, as I call it; that's the only thing we can do when life's breakers boil us in the sand.

—from The Path of Prayer: Reflections on Prayer and True Stories of How It Affects Our Lives by Sophy Burnham, Copyright © September 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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Table of Contents

ContentsAcknowledgments xi
Beginnings 1

Part I. When You Are Hurting and in Need

1 Confessions, Confusions 11
2 What Is Prayer? 23
3 What God Do You Pray To? 33
4 Looking into the Terror 45
5 When Thought Can Touch 60
6 The Four Stair-Steps of Prayer 81

Part II. When Prayers Are Answered

7 Pleading and Petitioning 95
8 Three Ways to Ask in Prayer 112
9 Loosing in Heaven, Binding on Earth 124
10 The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer 133
11 The Prayer of Touch 149

Part III. The Practice of Prayer

12 A Hundred Ways to Pray 165
13 The Principles of Petition 179
Asking 185
Noticing 187
Responding 188

14 The Prayers of Light 191
Beginning 192
Using the Light 194
Forgiveness Prayers 196
The Buddhist Metta or Forgiveness Prayer 201
When and How Long to Pray 204
When You Cannot Pray 206

15 Some Prayers to Practice On 208
Reducing the Words 208
Centering Prayer 209
The Prayer of Silence 210
Building Sacred Space 212
The God Box 213
Constant Prayer 213
How Not to Pray 218

16 Surrender and Relinquishment 220
The Structure of Prayer 222
Asking for Nothing 222
The 12 Steps of the Anonymous Programs 224
A Medley of Practical Prayers 228
For a Broken Relationship 229
For Your Creative Work 230
For Peace 230
A Child's Prayer 23
1 For Blessing a Home 231
For Cleansing a Home 232
For Healing Someone 234
For Yourself 235
The Simplest Prayer 235

Epilogue 238

Sources 247

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