By Laura Ieraci
CHICAGO — A new book on prayer begins with an invitation couched in a matter-of-fact statement: “Everyone can pray.”
Father James Martin, SJ, said he wrote his latest book, “Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone,” published in February, with the intention of demystifying prayer so more people would feel comfortable taking it up.
Not only can everyone pray, he said during a webinar with scholars, alumni and friends of The Lay Centre in March, but everyone has the desire to pray — and that desire is planted within them by God, who wants to draw them closer to himself.
Therefore, prayer is first “a response” to God’s invitation, he said, which should inspire confidence in people to pray.
However, many people — including many Catholics — “do a number on themselves” and convince themselves their prayer is not good or effective. Under the impression that prayer should involve grand visions or moving experiences, they get discouraged when “nothing really happens” or when they get distracted. Then, unsure about what is “supposed to happen” during prayer, many people either abandon prayer or don’t engage at all.
After offering several definitions of prayer in Catholic tradition, Father Martin offered his own: “a conscious conversation with God.”
Expounding on prayer as a personal relationship with God, he said the characteristics that make a good friendship, such as honesty, time spent together and attentive listening, are equally applicable to a good relationship with God.”
Father Martin addressed the concern of “many Catholics who think they’re doing something wrong if their prayer is dry.” But dryness in prayer is normal, he said.
“We have to remember that, even though any time spent with God is transformative in some way, sometimes it will seem on the surface that not much is going on.”
As well, it may seem there is not much going on in prayer because people are unaware of what to look for or are simply not being attentive. Father Martin offered six common experiences a person could expect as a fruit of prayer and should be attentive to, as they are ways God speaks.
The first is insight. An insight into a passage in Scripture or a situation in one’s life or something to act upon may be small, “but it unlocks something in you,” he said.
Emotion — such as regret or sadness — or desire — such as to be a better person — may emerge to draw attention to aspects in one’s life to improve or act upon. Memories — good or painful — may emerge in prayer: the former to console and the latter as an invitation to look at with Jesus. Feelings — of peace or calm — are also common. Finally, people may also expect words or short phrases to clearly pop into their mind in response to a question or concern, “almost like remembering the lyrics to a song or a poem.”
Father Martin explained how to evaluate these experiences in prayer as coming from God. First, the desire, feeling, emotion or image must be inherently good, that is, not morally compromised.
“If it is manifestly bad, it’s not coming from God,” he said.
Second, it must “fit with what we know about God,” as a loving and merciful God. Third, it must make sense in the context of the person’s life. Fourth, it inspires a desire for or leads to an increase in faith, hope and charity. Fifth, it almost “feels like it comes from outside you,” especially words and phrases, he said. “So there’s a kind of otherness about it.”
He encouraged his listeners to trust themselves in discerning these experiences and not to be discouraged by distractions.
Distractions in prayer, too, are commonplace, he said, and what is necessary is to distinguish between “unimportant distractions” and “important distractions.”
Important distractions consist of concerns that arise repeatedly during prayer, such as a troubling feeling, memory, relationship or situation. Repeated distractions may be “something that God is raising up” for a person to address and resolve.
Citing Catholic spiritual writer Margaret Silf, he said unimportant distractions in prayer, such as noise from the outdoors, should be acknowledged and allowed to pass, like “birds coming into your field of vision and going out.”
Father Martin said he is distracted in prayer, he prays: “God, I’m distracted, but I’m still with you.”
“We all have lives and bodies and problems,” he said. “So, even in the distractions, God can be with you.”
Photo by Sean Hemmerle