How to Pray Well
LEARNING TO PRAY: A Guide for Everyone, by James Martin SJ. HarperOne (2021). 386 pp.
Reviewed by Mitch Finley
This is an immense book on prayer, but don’t let the size of the volume intimidate you. Each and every page is worth reading.
Jesuit Father James Martin is articulate and exceptionally knowledgeable about his topic, and he is gifted when it comes to discussing even the most esoteric theological topics in language the average person can understand. In 18 chapters, Learning to Pray addresses one prayer-related topic after another, and in the end the reader can’t help but be well-informed about the meaning and practice of personal — not liturgical — prayer.
Whereas many contemporary books on prayer insist on being as brief as possible, the virtue of Fr Martin’s book is that it insists on relating to the reader as an adult who may well have serious questions about prayer. Brevity may be attractive, but depth can be more valuable.
Chapters include “Everyone Can Pray”, “Why Pray?”, “Praying Without Knowing It”, and a first-rate chapter on petitionary prayer.
Indeed, petitionary prayer has, in certain circles, a bad reputation. But Fr Martin’s pages on the topic are so sensible, practical and theologically reliable that the publisher should consider excerpting this chapter to issue as a small book all by itself. Titled “Everyone Needs Help”, this chapter on petitionary prayer is a joy and an inspiration to read all by itself.
“Why,” Fr Martin asks, “do so many of us have a difficult time with petitionary prayer? Perhaps we don’t want to ask God for help because it’s what we did as children. Or perhaps we were told — by a priest, a spiritual director, an author, a friend (who got it from some theologian) — that it’s wrong or selfish to ask for things in prayer. To which I say: ‘Baloney’.”
“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” is the chapter on rote prayers and formal prayers in general. And it would hardly be a book on prayer by a Jesuit if it did not include a chapter on St Ignatius of Loyola’s “Daily Examen”. The reader also gets chapters on a few popular prayer styles including Lectio Divina, centering prayer and nature prayer.
Learning to Pray is a very good book on prayer, and it’s too bad someone didn’t write it a long time ago. It’s a book that whistles up a renewed interest in prayer for veteran “pray-ers”, gives wise counsel for beginners, and is a guide many readers may well choose as a gift to give to friends and relations.
Here’s the thing. Fr James Martin has something of a habit of writing books on religious topics that become wildly popular bestsellers. Guess what? He’s done it again.—CNS
• Mitch Finley is the author of more than 30 books of popular Catholic theology. Copies of the book can be ordered from the Catholic Bookshop in Cape Town, other Catholic bookshops and online stores.
This article was published in the April issue of The Southern Cross magazine
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