Review of Face to Face by S. Michael Wilcox
Arms folded, head bowed, eyes closed, and of course, kneeling. This is what comes to mind when I hear, “Pray.” It is the position we are often told to inhabit, in addition to speaking aloud, when we pray. There are times in my life when this method of prayer has not been conducive to spirituality; when I’ve shared a bedroom or when life has been so heart rending that being on my knees isn’t low enough. Sometimes kneeling in the worn carpet next to my bed, elbows pushing into the mattress, head bowed with weighty matters, I am reminded of past prayers in this position- of prayers that were not answered, of prayers that bounced off the ceiling.
When I read S. Michael Wilcox’s new book, Face To Face, my heart was softened when he shared that he has also felt prayers bounce off the ceiling. It was a cue that this book would not be another treatise in the proper form of prayer, ie. how to get a more heartfelt prayer from the pain in your kneeling knees, or what the correct angle is for an appropriate head bow. Instead, this book is about prayer as a relationship with God. Wilcox instructs about more than prayer, he illustrates how, “The Savior’s closeness with the Father is open to us all.”
In my past there were those prayers when kneeling wasn’t low enough, but at the same time it felt as though I was so far away from my Heavenly Father that His heavenly abode was far beyond my fallen reach. I could not get low enough to pray, and I could never get high enough to reach Him. Isn’t that the story of mortality? Placed here in the middle, where God is so far and so close, we struggle to find a relationship with Him that is something like our premortal intimacy. We continually reach for Him in whatever direction He might be found; up, down, all around.
Reaching is the focus of Face to Face. The chapter titles describe reaching as more than simply a hand outstretched; reaching as pouring out, as wrestling, as believing, as acting, as desire, as knocking. These different perspectives on reaching, which are a kind of prayer, helped me to see my relationship with God in deeper context, beyond tolerating parent and weak-willed child.
One thing that I deeply appreciated were Wilcox’s thoughts on guilt. So often I approach prayer filled with guilt, it is necessary for repentance, which is a big part of prayer. At the same time I understood that guilt can be destructive. This book helped me to see guilt more fully in its proper place. “Guilt does positive damage when stored in the soul too long. It bars the entry of mercy and peace, which cannot heal when the space is occupied by guilt.”
I wonder if excess guilt has barred me from a deeper relationship with my Heavenly Father. It seems as though He threw away the sin that held me back, eager to forgive me, and I keep going back to it – finding the ugly thing, picking it up and showing it to Him. This may be what my prayers had become, instead of a communion with a perfect loving Father, I had been overly rehashing the ugliness that separated me from Him. Wilcox says so well,
Moral regrets must not be harvested and stored in the heart. They must be poured out or they tend to grow… Our own assessment of our goodness or folly is often woefully in adequate. Remorse is not a stable thing; it moves and shifts and gathers momentum until we open the floodgates and let it pour out into the loving ears and heart of a kind Parent who comprehends, forgives and pours in peace and solace.
This book is not about guilt though, it is about removing the barriers that keep our relationship with God from becoming as rich and fulfilling as it could be. It illuminates God’s desire and conditions for a relationship with us, as well as clarifying our part in that relationship.
One of those clarifications which I appreciated is Wilcox’s acknowledgement of what our prayers can be. It disassembles the staunch and prescribed form of personal prayer, breaking it down into a communication with God which goes beyond form and encompasses our souls. One example is the often prescribed routine of speaking our prayers aloud.
Wilcox describes and advocates a prayer of quiet, as one of many types of prayers, in which expressions shared with God are beyond words. In describing it he quotes Teresa of Avila (Another thing I love about this book is that Wilcox is willing to seek and share from the best books, LDS or not.):
“What I call noise is scurrying around with the intellect to come up with lots of words and thoughts to use in thanking God for this blessing, and piling up sins and faults to make it obvious that these gifts are undeserved. Everything is in motion, the intellect showing what it can do, and the memory rushing about.”
This prayer of quiet is a type of calming meditation, a simple willingness to spend time in God’s presence without words or pleadings, with no possibility of vain repetition.
This book is not a complete and far reaching analysis, it is not meant to be. It is a short book written by a godly man, who has learned to reach towards his Heavenly Father through his days of probation and offers what he has learned so that others can also enjoy a relationship with our shared Father. This book helped me to see my relationship with Heavenly Father beyond the ceiling, beyond words spoken aloud and sore knees. The kneeling spoken prayer will continue to be a part of my devotions, but less of a focus. I’ll return to this book to remind me of the purpose and object of my prayers, a reminder to focus on my relationship with Him more than the vehicle to it.
Wilcox is accessible, warm and ennobling in this book. Which is nothing less than he has done before, but it seems that this text shows a quiet and strong maturity of faith which reaches towards each of us as he encourages us to reach towards God.
Face to Face, Seeking a Personal Relationship with God is by bestselling author S. Michael Wilcox.