The Church of Jodi Picoult

The longest hours of my life were the couple times I went to prayer meeting with Grandma. I was young, not more than eight or nine, and I have gauzy memories of sitting quietly in a small-town living room littered with lace doilies, surrounded by serious women wearing hats, dresses and semi-sensible shoes.

Not their fancy Sunday hats, of course–this was an every day sort of dress up occasion. God frowned if women were too dressy during the week–and if women weren’t dressy enough on Sunday. I learned that in junior high when I suggested God wouldn’t mind if I wore dress pants to church. (Apparently, God tolerated dress pants better if the person in question was on the Honor Roll at school.That’s part of the “Mysterious Ways” He works, I guess.)

They sat in the overstuffed living room, holding their Bibles and small notebooks with their prayer list. The kitchen was where I wanted to be, near the table brimming with pies and fruit punch, chicken salad sandwiches and potato salad, but no. That was for after prayer meeting.  For the first hour, sitting piously in the livingroom was required, even by slightly squirmy children. If I’d been allowed to bring a book, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and I could have weathered the hour quite well, but somehow, leafing through the King James version of anything didn’t catch my imagination quite the same way. All these ladies did was talk, then cluck and awwwww in sympathy, then talk some more. Every so often, there would be some silence followed by a jarring “Amen,” then back to talking.

There might be a tale of someone who had something very something exciting happening, a promotion or new baby. Or they might tell about somebody’s child who was struggling in school, or someone who was facing temptation–but it wasn’t gossip, of course. They had to discuss it to find out who needs prayer. Names and situations flew, intermixed with exhorting God to do something about so-and-so’s liver condition or their neighbor’s crabgrass–literal or metaphorical.

Do women’s prayer groups exist anymore? My observation suggests not, especially as the community social/spiritual outlet that Grandma’s meeting was. In fact, the women’s-only groups of the churches I know suffer from a distinct lack of participation.  Life has changed, and we all have other obligations. Plus, prayer meeting… It sounds a little bit, well…old-fashioned. Heaven forbid that we be old-fashioned!

I don’t think the “prayer meeting” experience has declined, though–just the opposite, in fact. As I go through my list of female friends, almost every one of them is in a book club. Some of them, more than one book club. I’m not in a book club, and I had an odd conversation with someone recently who speculated that I didn’t really like to read that much because I’m not gathering with other women for a group discussion of a selected title.

That conversation amused me. I’m an English teacher. Reading isn’t just my hobby, it’s my profession–and possibly my religion. Yet in this day and age, the fact that I’m not on speed dial looking for a book club to join apparently leads makes it reasonable to question whether I am much of a reader at all.

Of course I’m a reader. At any given moment, I have Shakespeare, the complete works of Emerson, most of Thoreau’s writings, and the complete poems of Longfellow with me. I have Stephen King, Harry Dresden and Alastair Crowley,  the Bible and Richard Foster’s works, too, toted around on my Kindle, available every time I have a moment. I do read, voraciously, spanning classics to best-sellers, fiction, poetry and drama to non-fiction and serious academic research papers; I just don’t belong to a book club.

Women in my generation and younger have opted for the book club paradigm instead of the prayer meeting. We are socializing in a structured manner, giving us an excuse to get out of the house all under the guise of  “doing something important.”  Book clubs are still the same source of gossip that prayer meetings were. They’re the same source of social interaction and peer group bonding. In fact, I know of book clubs that throw social events and sponsored educational events, huge affairs with major authors attending. It’s the prayer meeting/women’s circle vibe all over again, just light on the Jesus–except some church-based books clubs, probably.

Is this a bad thing? No. It’s just the thing. Neither good nor bad, but the way society is now. One notable difference: prayer meetings tended to be organized by churches, there was a sense of commitment to an organization bigger than the prayer meeting. Book clubs are generated on an individual basis often by friends, neighborhoods, or even online–there’s often no overseeing organizations such as church. No answering to a minister, priest, or principal. It’s a grassroots organization.

As I think about this, I remember how my sister would get the best gossip from my Grandma by earnestly asking, “Grandma, who do I need to be praying for in the family?” She found out things none of us knew because Grandma was so touched by her interest in praying for the family. Of course, I’m not suggesting her need for updated prayer was less than sincere–that would be heresy. Or at least a venial sin…if we were Catholic. However, it was always interesting to hear what she found out. I suspect that now, the day after book club meetings, the families of the book clubber are regaled with as many tidbits of gossip and information as my sister got by pumping—no, asking–Grandma for her prayer concerns.

(***and why is this titled “The Church of Jodi Picoult?” She’s an author who is a staple of many book clubs. Evidence that I don’t belong in book clubs is my fatwa against her since she wrote the cheesy, lazy ending in My Sister’s Keeper.)