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 Formation and Spirituality Council