Film and Book Reviews

Prayers for some of life's darkest experiences

BookPrayers for Dementia: And how to live well with it; and Prayers for Depression: And how best to live with it; , by Fay Sampson (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2017)

By Samantha Bews

September 7 2018 

Fay Sampson is a prolific writer. She has written over 50 books of fiction and non-fiction in genres as diverse as fantasy, and Celtic, family and church history. Her latest project is a series of companion prayer books addressing mental illness. The first of these are Prayers for Dementia: And how to live well with it and Prayers of Depression: And how best to live with it.

“Two little gems of books” is how Radio Devon described these books and I thoroughly agree. Their structure is simple and the content detailed and expansive. Each book is divided into sections that address different readers. In Prayers for Dementia there are three sections: Part A is for the person with dementia; Part B their carer/partner/or loved one; and Part C for the family and the wider community including the church.

In Prayers for Depression there are two sections addressing firstly the person with depression; and then their family, friends and the wider community. Within each section Sampson lays out an aspect of the illness followed by a corresponding prayer. The text often includes helpful advice, actions to try, and factual information about the illness and available support services.

It may seem an obvious expectation of a companion prayer book, but the gift of these books is their profound rootedness in the life of Christ. Sampson uses her craft as a writer and her lived experience (her husband has dementia) to articulate the myriad facets of illness and its effects. She then deftly lays these dilemmas at the feet of Christ, reaching into His story for like situations and feelings. Frustration, bewilderment, anger and grief are just some of the experiences given space to breathe within the books’ pages. This in itself is an enormous blessing, because articulating experience is not always an easy task when you are in the thick of it. Similarly, to read like experience on the page can be affirming, especially when a person’s illness is the cause of stigma and misunderstanding. Prayers in the books are addressed to the many-faceted God, including: Parenting God; Patient God; Wounded Christ and Heavenly Father I Am Scared.

But the great goodness of the books is that all experiences, good and bad, are placed within the context of Christ’s greater Love. Gently, compassionately and drawing on an imagination that is skilled in travelling to other worlds, Sampson writes prayers that meet even the darkest experiences. In doing so it is as though she throws open the arms of Christ. Every shameful nook, every fearful cranny, every corner of ridiculousness is held in these arms, in the reality of Christ’s love. It is from this broad acceptance of our human fragility that she also offers glimpses of transcendence from suffering. For example in a prayer to the Truthful Christ Sampson writes, “You never shrank from telling the truth. May my honesty help others to accept and understand the reality of dementia”.

One of the inadvertent gifts of the books is that they end up being beautiful little instruction books on the art of friendship. The ability to stand with someone through illness is much underrated in our society, which is to our detriment, because in doing so there is much wisdom to be found. Because Sampson articulates the experience of illness so intricately, she blows away obfuscation that comes with fear of the unknown. And there are so many fears with these illnesses, and with these fears come the unspoken “reasons” for walking away from their difficulties. Articulation provides a bridge between people, giving both parties the language to express their concerns. Sampson also suggests actions to try where words do not suffice. These two elements are immensely beneficial for people who wish to be of service to those with illness, but do not have the language or tools to know what to do. As such the books give a framework from which to offer abiding love.

I have two minor criticisms of the books. The first is a slight discomfort with the use of the personal pronoun in the prayers. I found this particularly discomforting in the first sections of the books, for the person living with the illness. It is a device that is used to create intimacy of experience, but I felt irritated by the presumption on the part of the writer that she could know, rather than imagine, what it is to have the illness. At the same time, Sampson is at times prescriptive about an issue, or the meaning of an experience. For example on visiting the person with dementia in care, Sampson advises that in time the partner may wish to go less often to visit – as the person “slips away”. There are presumptions in this suggestion which I disagree with. Such prescription shuts the door on the many questions that still surround dementia, including the nature of personhood and human consciousness. But perhaps these are complex philosophical and theological dilemmas that cannot be contained within the scope of these books.

At around 80 pages and at the size of a postcard these little books are packed with riches. Their simple structure belies a wealth of lived, learned and imagined experience. They are intricate in their expression of what it is to live with dementia or depression, and hold the reader in compassionate care. I recommend them to anyone of faith willing to walk the journey of illness.