Book review of
Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone
Fr. James Martin, SJ
Pope Francis said recently that prayer is “an art to be practiced with insistence.” Similarly, Francis once tweeted, “Praying is not like using a magic wand. Prayer requires commitment, constancy and determination.” Prayer takes practice! But like any art, someone has to teach us how to pray. We learn from our parents, from school, from Scripture and the liturgy itself. Sadly, a focused education in prayer seems rare. When it comes to personal prayer with God, many lack the basic know-how to make prayer especially fruitful.
This is where Fr. James Martin’s new book Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone can be so valuable. One of the top reasons, according to Martin, that people don’t pray is not that they don’t want to pray but that they don’t know how, like someone who has never been taught to swim. As a Jesuit steeped in Ignatian spirituality, an avid pray-er, and a dedicated spiritual director, Martin is more than qualified to teach us. He admits he is no “expert,” as if one could “master” their relationship with God, but Martin’s approach leans on his decades of personal and practical experience, ensuring that we are apt to learn something.
To learn an art, one could read about that topic. For prayer, this might be a short pamphlet about the various types of prayer or the history of prayer. Alternatively, one could read a how-to manual, a guided instructional that provides the specific steps one needs to take to pray. Fr. Martin’s book is both of these but also much more. He not only gives us the what and the how, but also the why. In reading this book, we discover a new appreciation for prayer and its necessity in our lives. We learn the do’s and don’ts of prayer and how to avoid common pitfalls, but most of all we find encouragement to deepen our relationship with the God who sustains us.
What makes Martin’s book especially unique are the stories he shares. While the book is organized in a highly structured format, he illustrates his wisdom and insights on prayer with vivid and engaging stories. This 400-page book might seem daunting at first, but it is written in a free flowing style and Martin is a capable storyteller. Whether he sharing his experiences learning from a speech coach with actors in New York, recharging on a four week Ignatian retreat, or sailing on a boat in the Sea of Galilee, Martin is always eager to connect his experiences to his Catholic faith and to how we can grow closer to God through prayer.
Martin carefully weaves his theology of prayer throughout the book. He does this subtly at times and more explicitly at others, but it is clear that the core of Martin’s message is that prayer is for everyone because God has initiated a dialogue with all of us. The fundamental lesson he shares is that our prayer is our response to that call in our hearts, which is manifested in our longing for communion with God.
Martin’s combination of fidelity and openness is refreshing, particularly for the way that Martin defies easy categorization. He talks earnestly about sin in an extended discussion of the Examen, warns against the solipsistic way that prayer can serve our selfish desires, and defends the use of “rote prayers” in our spiritual life. Martin also embraces the importance of groundedness and presence, the use of poetry as an entry into contemplation, and the beauty of finding God in creation. This book undoubtedly will be a challenge to many, either to think about prayer in a new way or to find new ways to pray that one previously thought too whimsical or too traditional.
Martin’s book couldn’t come at a better time. For a world that is at odds with itself, and societies that are increasingly fragmented, prayer is a necessary part of the solution. Our world needs love, but this love does not originate “out there.” Rather, God first nurtures his love in our hearts in prayer. We learn to love in dialogue with the God who sent his only Son to die on the Cross for us.
Prayer is undeniably transformative, and this alone might turn people off of prayer. Martin agrees that change can be difficult and scary. But the kind of transformation our world needs must begin with the softening of our hearts of stone, which God turns into living hearts that bear fruit in our lives. Pope Francis says that prayer is the key to this transformation, reminding us that “prayer opens the door to God, turning our often stony hearts into a human heart. And this demands a lot of humanity, and with humanity one can pray well.”
It is a shame that the transforming power of God’s love is thwarted by our inability to pray well. Whether we lack commitment, or patience, or frankly are too lazy, many of us often see prayer as an obstacle to the enjoyment of our daily lives. We are afraid of where God might lead us or we doubt that God is really listening. Despite the fact that prayer is as natural as breathing, praying doesn’t always come naturally. Martin’s book dispels many false perceptions we may have about prayer, and he helps us understand precisely how prayer is essential to an integrated, joyful life.
With the help of others, including teachers and spiritual directors, we can mature in our spiritual life. Where we once cried out to God anxiously and desperately, we learn to find peace with God who reigns in the silence in our hearts. Nothing we can do is more vital to our spiritual development or changing the world than learning how to pray well. To pray well is to be fully alive, to be who we are meant to be.
Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone was released on February 2, 2021 by HarperOne. Order from Amazon in hard cover or for Kindle format by clicking here. Click here to order directly from the publisher.