When I was a little girl, I thought that praying meant asking God that I not die in my sleep, then commending everyone in my inner circle to him: Now I lay me down to sleep…if I die before I wake…and, of course, God bless Mommy and Daddy and Nanny and all the relatives, named at extensive length until I fell asleep. I also had a poster on my wall that asked the Good Lord to deliver me from ghoulies and ghosties, long-leggitie beasties, and other fairly horrific creatures that could have been drawn by Hieronymus Bosch. Needless to say, praying was a little fraught.
Sunday School didn’t focus much on prayer, but it did assure me that because I was a little child Jesus loved me. There wasn’t a lot of how-to involved. He just did. Later on, I was informed by numerous camp counselors that prayer had the quality of a miraculous incantation. You ask, and you receive. Sort of like a genie lamp, with far more wishes. When my very specific and mundane requests didn’t get answered, I had the option of believing that I was asking for the wrong things, or that prayer just didn’t work. I took the latter approach, to the point that if I really wanted a certain outcome, I would pray for the opposite, because I had such a bad record of answered prayers.
It would be many years before I came to understand how much I didn’t understand about prayer: that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t something to be recited without error to prove that one is not a witch; that the “telephone to Jesus” really does create a connection, but not in a Ma Bell sort of way; that the Book of Common Prayer contains some of the most beautiful sentences ever written.
Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow provided the perspective that since God knows everything already, one word prayers will often suffice. But even with that insight, there’s much more to prayer than my early life as a Christmas and Easter Only Episcopalian ever prepared me to understand. More ways to do it. More history behind it. More moving language in it. And, perhaps most importantly, more connection created by it—not just to God, but to the world, to each other. Now that I know a little more than I used to, it makes me want to understand even more.
Do you, too, want to know more about how to pray? On Thursday, September 9, at 6:00 p.m. Central, The Rev. James Martin, SJ, will discuss his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Author Series. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, and bestselling author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. He has written for many publications, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he is a regular commentator in the national and international media. He has appeared on all the major radio and television networks, as well as in venues ranging from NPR’s Fresh Air, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, and PBS’s NewsHour to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988, He graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked for General Electric for six years. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed him to be a Consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication. He knows how to communicate, with God, and with others here on Earth.
It seems to me that learning how to pray better from an expert like Father Martin would be a very timely practice. For everyone.
If you want to know more about Learning to Pray, you’ll find a review from St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, FL, below.
If you would like to register for the EBA Authors Series conversation with Father Martin, click here.
If you would like to purchase the book from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.
Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.
~St. Teresa of Avila
Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone
by James Martin, SJ
(386 pages, HarperOne, 2021)
A good resource to consider as we are encouraged to devote ourselves to prayer during Lent 2021 is a new book by James Martin, SJ. Martin, a well-known author of over 20 books, has written Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone to encourage everyone to engage in prayer. He starts by noting that for many, prayer is “foreign, daunting, even frightening…” (3), and then lists why so many find prayer difficult — they weren’t taught; they think it’s only for holy people; they think or have been told they’re praying “wrong”; they don’t realize that they already pray; they think they have “failed” at prayer; they see no point in praying; they’re too busy or lazy; or they fear change. (3-9) He tells his readers that prayer is all about a relationship with God, and that God plants in us the desire for a relationship with God—God doesn’t pick some of us for a relationship, but makes the opportunity available to all. After a thorough discussion of why everyone should pray, how to pray without even knowing you’re praying, what is prayer, various types and methods of prayer, descriptions of what happens when we pray and how do we discern God’s presence in our prayers, he concludes Learning to Pray by affirming that, when we pray, we can expect that:
–God will show up.
–You will encounter God.
–You will experience God’s love.
–God will invite you into further conversation and deeper relationship, (354), and
–You will be moved to act. (355-364)
So, what is prayer? Martin reviews a number of traditional definitions, including “a raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (from St. John Damascene, an 8th Century Syrian monk), and “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven” (by St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th Century nun), among others. But Martin is most taken with that “prayer is a conscious conversation with God” because he believes that God desires a personal relationship with each one of us. He analogizes that what works well for the development and nurture of human friendships would also apply to a relationship with God. That, for Martin, means that the prayer should spend time with God, learn about God, be honest with God, listen and be silent at least some time, and be willing to change. All of the prayer practices he discusses are how one develops and deepens a relationship with God.
Martin notes that both petitionary prayers (asking God for something for oneself or others) and rote prayers (prayers that have been written down, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, among many) are sometimes pooh-poohed by writers about prayer. He notes that other spiritual writers suggest that petitionary and rote prayers can too often be recited without meaningful thought or intention by the one who prays. Martin, however, entertains the idea that a substantial part of one’s prayer life can and will consist of these types prayer. After all, such prayers are natural and appear often in the Bible or throughout history. They are often written on our hearts. Such prayers unite us with those who have prayed the same prayers over time. He does suggest some useful ways to use such prayers, and also suggests that other forms of prayer should supplement petitionary and rote prayers.
As a good Jesuit, he recommends using the daily Examen as a way to become more aware of God’s presence in everyday life. He also promotes using lectio divina, or sacred reading, as a form for praying with scripture. Centering prayer and praying with nature are other methods to deepen one’s relationship with God. When he discusses each different form or method of prayer, he suggests how the method has been used by others, and shares personal and other stories to illustrate how the prayer is used and experienced.
Many books on prayer discuss types and methods of prayer, but don’t help the reader understand what happens when they pray, nor do they address how we know that it is God that is present with us in prayer rather than an evil spirit or just our own selves – Martin includes a chapter to address each of these concerns.
Wherever you are in your relationship with God, this book will likely have something beneficial for you to consider.
Reviewed by Joe O’Shields, St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, Florida