Father James Martin explains why prayer is so difficult
Father James Martin is one of America’s best known and most loved priests. The bestselling author is a fixture on many cable news programs and late-night hosts, famous for his kind and witty demeanor. His friendship with Stephen Colbert has helped propel him into many high profile concerts, but this Jesuit priest remains a friendly and humble interpreter of noble spiritual truths to those curious about Catholic teaching on modern life.
His most recent book Learning to Pray: A Guide for All strips prayer of its austerity, finding honesty in mystery and warmth in its ubiquity. He explained to us why he believes anyone can pray, why “I don’t know” is such an important part of understanding prayer, and why remembering that God wants to be your friend is the key to a lifelong life. healthy prayer.
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Why a book on prayer?
Well I wrote a book called The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything six or seven years ago, and it concerns Jesuit spirituality. There was a lot of prayer in there, but I always wanted to do a big prayer book. I think people feel that they don’t know how to pray, that they cannot pray, that they are not good at prayer. I hear these things all the time, and it makes me sad, because prayer is for everyone. The first line of the book is really important to me, which is, “Anyone can pray. ”
Why do you think people have a hard time feeling like prayer is available for their skills?
People feel like nothing is happening when they pray. They close their eyes and nothing happens, or they get bored or they are distracted. Like: “What am I supposed to feel or experience?”
The second thing is that they tend to compare themselves to people. You hear someone say, “Oh, I never go a day without my prayer and devotions.” And you think, “Well, what is this person going through? I don’t live this.
Then there is a part of the population who feels unworthy, not holy enough and who prevents people from praying.
Some hypothetical prayer scenarios. Let’s say someone’s grandmother falls with COVID. People are praying for her and she is getting better and everyone is saying “prayer works! But what about the other grandmothers who are not doing better? Wasn’t someone just praying for them? Is it even worth entering into these tensions?
It is worth it because it is a very important part of spiritual life that is ignored and people struggle with. Like, “Why don’t I have what I’m praying for?” I review a lot of the answers in my book.
Here’s the traditional response you get: “Well, you get what you pray for, but you just can’t see it. You have something else. In this example, God is almost a con artist where you have to figure out how he answers your prayer. But if you pray for your grandmother and she gets sick and dies, you can reasonably say, “My prayer has not been answered. I didn’t get what I prayed for.
So here’s another response you hear: “God gives you something better. I think it fails too. Imagine, to take a horrible example, you pray for a dying child, and they die. Now you’re going to say to that person, “Oh, God give you something better. It’s a terrible thing to say to someone.
Or maybe someone is telling you “your prayer has been answered and the answer has been no”. It also makes God almost like a sadist. especially when Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.”
It’s clear that sometimes people don’t seem to get what they asked for. For me, the most honest answer to this question is “we don’t know”. We don’t know why this is happening, why this grandmother lives and others die. I think this is the most honest answer.
But we still believe in a God, even if we don’t understand God. It’s OK to have this mystery to not understand and continue to believe in God.
There’s this famous quote from CS Lewis about how “I don’t pray to change God’s mind, I pray to change mine”: or something along the same lines.
CS Lewis is the spiritual master. I agree that when we pray we are changed. I mean, we’re connected with God, which is always transformative. But also, if you pray for “I want the homeless to have a good meal,” you start to say, “Well, maybe it’s me who needs to change and help the person. ” This is a good thing.
But at the same time, I think it can prevent people from praying honestly. I think it can somehow frustrate our relationship with God. It is important for us to pray and ask for what we want. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane said, “Take out this cup. He asks for something.
In the book I talk about three parts of prayer, which comes from a Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, one of which is honesty. So we’re honest, like Jesus was honest in the Garden. We trust that God hears us, but then also we accept what is to come.
I mean, Jesus doesn’t say my will, but your will be done. I think in these situations you have to pray these prayers. It’s just part of being honest with God.
Something you hear a lot of people say is that it’s important not to just ask God for things. You also need to take the time to praise it but, of course, that doesn’t come as naturally to us as “please help me”. How can we foster this spirit?
I think if you pray in a sense of gratitude it sometimes comes more easily. I’m not going to say to someone, “Don’t praise God. That’s for sure. But I’m also not going to say that if you don’t praise God, your prayers are somehow not being heard. So, for example, someone who is sick, it is very difficult for him to praise God. So I think starting with gratitude: “Thank you my God for what you have given me. Thanks for the blessings. Thank you for the simple gift of life. I’m so grateful to be in a relationship with you, ”it’s a praise of the kinds of things that God has done. I think it’s healthy. But I think if you don’t, it’s not like you’re disrespecting.
However, I would say if you never praise God and are never thankful, then something is wrong. Does all this just ask for things?
In the book, I talk about prayer as a relationship. So let’s say you and I go out to dinner or something, and all I do is ask you for favors. You would say, “It’s a little weird.” Or all I do is congratulate you, “Oh, you’re so generous. You are so talented. It’s weird too.
I think it must be a mixture of things. It must be a full-fledged relationship.
I feel like the fault of a lot of people is that they don’t really think of God in terms of a relationship. Why is this happening?
Because it’s too familiar. “Why would God want a relationship with me? Who am I? ”Of course, that ignores the whole history of salvation. God wants a relationship with all of us, doesn’t He? But also because I think they think it’s a little disrespectful. Like, “I shouldn’t even start to think of God in terms of friendship or relationship,” but it can really help your spiritual life.
What does a good relationship need? Well, it takes time. Imagine saying, “This person is the most important person in my life”. “How long are you giving him?” “Well, none.” It requires being open, it requires changes, it requires comfortable experiences of silence. So whatever you can say about a good friendship, you can say it about a good relationship with God.