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Q&A with Erik Walker Wikstrom

Erik Walker Wikstrom talks about tiny flowers and mushrooms, children and editors, and how he discovered the prayer practice that led him to write Simply Pray.

How did you conceive of this book?
When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I found myself wanting and needing a prayer practice yet knowing that none of the practices I’d previously explored quite filled the bill. The Chaplain’s office had little plastic rosaries for the priests to give to patients, and one day I picked one up and began to use it—not with the traditional rosary but with a pattern that seemed to make sense to my understandings of my own spiritual and psychological needs. When Scott Alexander put out a call for contributions to Everyday Spiritual Practice a friend encouraged me to write up something about the prayer practice I was using. My chapter was included, yet much seemed left unsaid. My wonderful experience of working with Skinner House on my first book—Teacher, Guide, Companion—gave me the courage to suggest that my chapter could be a book on its own.

 Once the idea was approved for you to begin work, where did you start?
I started by looking at what I’d written for Scott’s book and seeing where and how that might need to be changed. And then I began expanding and filling in. I looked more fully into prayer literature and, in particular, literature concerning the use of beads in prayer. I wanted to give a more solid foundation to what I’d previous intuited. The idea of including explorations of well known prayers was the last thing to come, but I’m awfully glad it did—I think it reinforces our Unitarian Universalist inclination to seek our own meaning and our own expressions even within the words of tradition. (As well as gently reminding us of the importance and potential usefulness to us of those traditions.)

If you have children in your life, how do you think children understand or use prayers?
I have two children—currently ages seven and four-and-a-half—and I think they understand prayer as asking God—or, as they often say, “Mother Earth”—for things. They’re not (yet?) asking for material things but, instead, for courage in facing fears, for help with problems, and for themselves and others to feel better when they’re feeling badly. I think, though, that they do many things that I understand to be prayer even when they don’t: the way they stare in awe at the night sky, or call everyone within earshot to come look at a mushroom or a tiny flower. Their enthusiasm, their energetic appreciation, their sense of wonder and marvel, their ability to experience mystery—all these are, to me, moments of prayer.

Has anything interesting happened to you as a result of this book?
I have heard from people from all over the country who have found in the prayer bead practice something that they were looking for, too. Some follow the outline in the book exactly; many have made their own alterations to make it feel more fitting for them. I’ve been particularly touched by those who say that the book has opened up for them again the possibility of prayer when they’d thought that baby had gone out with the bathwater!

How has your own practice of prayer evolved?
I am currently practicing a form of meditative/contemplative prayer modeled on the Centering Prayer of Thomas Keating and the Christian Meditation teachings of John Main. I continue to carry my prayer beads with me everywhere, but I find that I rarely go through the practice.

Is there anything about prayer that you’ve learned or experienced since you wrote this book?
I am reminded daily how difficult it is for me to make a real practice of prayer—a regular, disciplined practice. I have also found seemingly endless confirmation that there is no “wrong” way to pray except, perhaps, not to do it. If you want to begin a prayer practice, begin. That’s the only secret. And when you find that you’ve fallen off, get back on. No muss, no fuss.

 Anything else you would note to readers now that it’s published on the process, the struggle, or the joy of having compiled this book?
I would imagine that most readers are not adequately aware of the collaborative nature of writing a book. With both Simply Pray and Teacher, Guide, Companion, the finished book was quite different from the manuscript I turned into the folks at Skinner House! In both cases I would say that it was greatly improved. As my father, a writer, used to say, “Authors know what they intend to say; editors know what you’ve actually said,” and it’s the skillful guidance of an editor that enables an author to actually say what she or he intended! So I give full credit to Mary Benard and the other folks at Skinner, without whom I would have still had good ideas but would not have been able to express them as effectively. It has been for me, a sheer joy to watch these books unfold and evolve and, then, a humbling pleasure to see them so well received.

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Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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