Brown, Nimue. When a Pagan Prays: Exploring Prayer in Druidry and Beyond. Moon Books, 2014.
Nimue Brown, a Druid author who blogs at Druid Life, wrote Spirituality Without Structure (my review of which is HERE) in the space between writing this book, and When a Pagan Prays feels very much like a spiritual successor to the former.
Nimue describes When a Pagan Prays as not one book, but two:
“One of those books is an amateur attempt at some academic writing, featuring comparative religious studies, psychology, sociology and a bit of research. The other book is an experiential tale of what happened to me when I started to explore prayer as a personal practice”.
While I found the academic analysis of prayer (what it is, what it’s for, why people pray etc) interesting, not least because of my own background in religious studies, it’s the “other book” that makes When a Pagan Prays stand out.
Nimue is frank and open in her exploration of prayer, and comes to it from a position of agnosticism (“maybeism” as she describes it) rather than one of faith. This makes her exploration all the more interesting to read, especially as her theological starting point is strikingly similar to my own. She says “while I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either”.
So why pray? Well, this is the very question that Nimue sets out to explore, through personal practice and experience. Taking it pretty much as a given that materialistic “God give me a pony” type petitionary prayers not only don’t work, but are described by several religious writers Nimue cites from all over the theological map as being the least important form of prayer, Nimue instead looks at prayer as “entering into a mystery, not getting a result”.
One fascinating concept Nimue introduces is what she calls the “nontheist test”. That is, if a spiritual practice has real-world benefits, then it should, in theory, be able to be practiced by a nontheist. In other words, you should not have to assume the existence of any deity in order to do a particular practice. Meditation, for instance, would pass the nontheist test, as it has clear and well-documented benefits. But prayer?
When it comes to whom to pray to, Nimue explores various approaches and ultimately finds the Shinto concept of the Kami one that fits well with her approach to Druidry. The Kami are similar to the concept of Nature Spirits one often finds in animist and Pagan worldviews, and are more immanent and approachable than a distant and omnipotent God-concept.
But you can also pray to ancestors, aspects of nature (the Earth, the Sun), or even to other people. Prayer in this sense becomes a way of deepening connection to all that is, and there is no need to adopt any specific beliefs to do this. As Nimue writes: “If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.”
Nimue guides the reader through her own explorations of prayer, and never says that because she did it this way, therefore her way is the right way, or that all Druids must pray, or that any particular belief is necessarily the right one. I appreciate that, and it is fitting in a tradition such as Druidry which has no Holy Books, that every Druid find their own way to pray, if indeed they choose to at all. The final few chapters look at creating Druid prayers and working in group prayer and ritual, and are doubtless of use to any Druid who is involved in creating and leading group rituals.
My own theological framework tends to non-theism, agnosticism and animism, and I find that I have no frame of reference for traditional-literal concepts of God or the gods. But this book has made me look at prayer in a new light, and think about my daily practice of greeting the sun in the morning and the moon at night as a form of prayer.
In the end, it seems that prayer is what you make of it, and that it works in mysterious ways. Whatever your theological persuasion, I would recommend this book to anyone, of any religion or none, who is curious about maybe starting a prayer practice or just wants to take a refreshing new look at the subject.
As Nimue writes:
“Mostly, prayer doesn’t work. Except that to a degree I find quite disconcerting, mostly it has”.