James Martin SJ is a best-selling author and the editor at large at America magazine; he has recently released a new book, “Learning to Pray, A Guide for Everyone.” Let me start by saying that the subtitle is accurate. Martin is talking to everyone from the mystics in the cloister to those who hardly give a thought to prayer. He talks about personal prayer, the experience which fosters a deeper relationship with God.
I have been praying almost all my life and I found many of Martin’s ideas to be reassuring. He deals with things like distractions, dryness, and reasonable and unreasonable expectations. He answers certain questions that, sooner or later, many of us have, and he gave me new ways to improve my way of praying. I found the book both practical and inspirational.
Martin is a Jesuit. Under the direction of St. Ignatius Loyola, all Jesuits are trained from the novitiate onward to pray according to the saint’s well-known Spiritual Exercises. He is quoted here often, of course. But also more contemporary Jesuits like William Barry SJ and Mark Thibodeaux SJ also have their say. I had been familiar over the years with the practice of a daily Examen, for example, but it had never impressed me much. But Martin described it in a way I understood for the first time and he showed me how to practice it fruitfully. He also discusses other formats like centering prayer, nature prayer, and praying when you don’t notice you are praying.
The best part of the book is Martin himself who writes like someone talking with you as a companion on a long walk, not as an expert or someone trying to show off what he knows. The second-best part of the book is all the other authors he brings along. You will find the best of what St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, Karl Rahner, and Thomas Merton have to say about prayer. I was also introduced to authors I hadn’t known about, like Joyce Rupp who said, “The surest sign of prayer’s genuineness is when it influences what you say and do.”
If you only have time for one book on prayer, “Learning to Pray,” is my recommendation, even though it is a long read. I took a section of it each day; that has the added advantage of allowing me to savor what I was reading.
The book renewed my sense of the possibilities of prayer. I had always thought that God’s primary job in prayer was listening to me. At least I hoped he was listening to me. Martin goes into how God might also be inspiring, guiding, and otherwise helping me to discern God’s presence in my life. He describes the process of discernment in order to figure out how much of your prayer is just you and how much is really a gift from God. He even discusses very candidly what it means when we petition God for help and he doesn’t seem to answer that prayer.
We can all learn a lot from this good Jesuit.