Book review: ‘Learning to Pray’
“Learning to Pray.” By Father James Martin, SJ. New York: Harper Collins, 2021. 386 pages. Hardcover: $24.99; Paperback: $17.99; Kindle: $14.99; Nook: $14.99; Large Print: $29.99.
One of the first things a potential reader of this book, “Learning to Pray,” should NOT do is pass it by, thinking, “I’ve been praying for years. I already know how to do it.”
Although author Father James Martin acknowledges that he “begins at the beginning” for those who, for a variety of reasons, are not currently “pray-ers,” he goes on, in subsequent chapters, to show that even those who have been praying for years can, like the saints, learn even more ways to grow closer to God. From the prayers we may not even be conscious of, to prayers of petition, formal memorized prayers, the Examen, Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, nature prayer, spiritual direction, retreats and faith sharing, Father Martin guides the reader through the multitude of riches contained within the Catholic prayer tradition.
Despite its length – close to 400 pages if you count all the references and notes at the end – it is not a tedious read at all. That is due both to the subject matter, which is deeply inspiring, and to the author himself, whose approach to the material is more like a conversation with a good friend than a formal theological treatise. For every concept he introduces, Martin has a story to explain it, either from his own life or the lives of the people he has known and worked with as a Jesuit and a spiritual director. All of this combines to make a topic that could be overwhelming and formidable quite approachable instead.
For the novice, there is assurance that prayer is not something reserved only for the pious and holy. The first lines of the book are, in fact, “Everyone can pray. Let me put that another way. If I can learn how to pray, then so can you.” With the honesty that is characteristic of the entire work, Father Martin opens with his own early experiences with prayer, which, he admits, were rather infrequent before he entered the Jesuit Order. Part of this guide, therefore, is a glimpse into his own spiritual journey, which is both illustrative and encouraging.
Those further along the road will find much of value here as well. “Even if you pray every day, see a spiritual director every month and go on a retreat every year, this book is designed for you too,” Father Martin continues. “My hope is that even if you’ve been praying for decades, you might learn something new. Whenever I read a new book on prayer, I’m always surprised. Everyone’s approach to prayer is necessarily personal, which means there’s always something new to learn.”
There are a few chapters in this book that are particularly useful in any understanding of prayer. In one, entitled “What Happens When You Pray,” Father Martin explores the many ways in which we connect with God and God connects with us, ways that we may not have been aware of before.
In the next chapter, entitled “How Do I Know It’s God?” Father Martin guides the reader through the steps of discernment — with concrete questions — to help us differentiate between God’s voice and a voice that might be from another source. Finally, he deals with the tough questions in prayer – distractions, “dryness” and “the overall ups and downs of the spiritual life.”
Finally, he speaks of how prayer should ultimately lead us to action. “Now that you have experienced prayer,” he concludes, “the … question can be asked of you: ‘What difference will it make in your life?’ You have a lifetime to answer. And the answer is your life.”
For the prayer novice and veteran alike, reading this book is like going on a retreat whose subject is prayer. It is well worth the time you will spend both reading about prayer and praying with it.
Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication and author of numerous books including the New York Times bestsellers “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” and “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” A frequent commentator in the national and international media, Father Martin has appeared on all major networks. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988 he graduated from the Wharton School of Business.