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‘Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone’: Father James Martin On The Possibilities of Prayer

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Father James Martin

You may have seen Father James Martin on Stephen Colbert’s talk show or listened to him on NPR talking about the way that faith shapes President Joe Biden’s leadership.

Father James talks to us about learning to pray in his latest book "Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone." He provides a rich history of the different styles of prayer and offers the idea that there is no one way to do it and that everyone can derive something from prayer.

Highlights from the Interview

On how prayer can be for everyone

Everyone can pray because everyone is invited into our relationship with God. And that may sound a little, you know, mysterious for people. But I think most people who are believers would agree that God is connected to them and that God wants to be in relationship to them. And if they look around in their lives, they can see moments where God has kind of reached down to be with them or to encounter them.

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The book talks more about one-on-one time with God, and I think one of the big misconceptions is that people think you have to be super holy to pray. Most of the time people sit down, and they try to pray, and they don't feel like anything's happening. So the book is focused on the kinds of things that can happen in prayer, as well as the types of different prayers that you can use to encounter God.

On what we can learn about prayer from the way we prayed in childhood

I think it was like a lot of people's prayer. It was basically asking for things, which is fine. I mean, petitionary prayer sometimes gets denigrated, but look, after all that, the Lord's prayer includes the words, "give us this day” and “forgive us.” I mean, Jesus is inviting us to ask God for things.

A lot of my prayer [as a child] was, you know, “give me this, give me that” and a little bit of bargaining. Then I had a few experiences of what I would call kind of mystical experiences, which doesn't make me out to be a saint or anything. I think most people have those experiences. The problem is that they're not encouraged to notice them or to talk about them.

I think when people look back, they might be able to see in their childhood times when God was really close. Kids are just more open to that because they're not burdened with a lot of the sort of “should” about prayer and how prayer should be. And they're just more open and, no, not every child, of course, but a lot of kids.

On moving from prayer to action

It’s important to take people where they are. And so one of the things I wouldn't say is, “Oh, well, if you just pray, you'll feel better or you'll get over it, or God will fix things,” because there is something called “the mystery of suffering,” and you know, why do natural disasters happen? There's no…satisfactory answer for that.

Why do bad things happen? There are perspectives on the Christian beliefs that Christ is with us in those things. But part of it is encouraging people to be honest in prayer, about what they're feeling and what they're experiencing and trusting that God can be with them through all of that. And again, it's to encourage people, to be honest, even if you have to ask for things, right? I mean, I've been asking for, along with everybody else, a cure for the COVID virus for the last year, and it took a while. But other people ask for things that don't seem to happen or to come true. And I think it's really important to address that. I do in the book really bluntly.

If you pray for your husband or wife to recover from cancer, and they don't recover, that prayer was not answered in the way that you wanted it to be. Now you might have been getting other graces as a result, you might be getting strength or wisdom or a sense of peace or acceptance. But it's important to say that that prayer was not answered as you wanted it to be. And the invitation is to still be in a relationship with a God, whom you may not understand, right? And I think that's part of being in a relationship. Being in a relationship with anyone is a kind of mystery. Being in relationship with God is the biggest mystery, right? But it's still a mystery we're called into.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.