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Learning to Pray: A guide for everyone, by James Martin

21 May 2021

Philip Welsh considers a potential bestseller about learning to pray

JAMES MARTIN is something of an American celebrity Jesuit, a prolific author on the spiritual life, and — as the blurb for this title generously confirms — “one of the world’s most beloved spiritual leaders”.

Learning to Pray offers a basic guide to what prayer is, how to set about it, and what it feels like. “I’ll assume that you know next to nothing about prayer. That way I’ll be able to include everyone, beginners through those with years of experience. But I will also assume that you can come up to speed quickly.”

He starts by affirming how much implicit prayer we may have already experience of without realising, and commends as his dominant model for praying “conversation with God” as with a friend.

He is clear that prayer is about God — this is not a book on mindfulness — though it is some time before his generalised talk of God acquires some edges by reference to Christ or to the Bible.

As he reviews various methods of praying, it is clear that Martin addresses a general audience, but does so firmly as a Jesuit. He describes the common currency of conversational prayer, written prayers, lectio divina, and petitionary prayer, but reserves extended consideration for the daily Examen — the structured review of the day as taught by Ignatius — and for the practice of Ignatian contemplation. His introduction to the contrasting apophatic tradition of “centering prayer” is one of the briefer chapters.

A particular strength of this book is its attempt to describe “what happens after we close our eyes? This is one of the most important questions in the spiritual life and one of the least addressed in spiritual writing.” Martin declares his remit to be “personal, or private prayer”; so it is not surprising that he does not write about prayer in worship. But he also omits two ways of praying familiar to many — though usually differing — non-Roman Catholics: extempore prayer with others, and the Daily Office.

His style is loose-limbed, anecdotal, and occasionally presumptuous (“Wait a minute, you might be thinking”), but it carries us easily through quite a substantial volume. He talks a good deal about his personal background and his ministry as spiritual director, with a useful description of what receiving direction is like.

Learning to Pray is full of good sense and helpful realism, not least about spiritual dryness — “Here is what sometimes happens in the morning — nothing.” Beneath its savvy, unpious presentation, it offers broadly conventional teaching that is not particularly theological, original, or deep, but provides for a general readership an easily digested introduction to personal prayer and showcases the Jesuit tradition.

Whatever Martin might score on the raised-eyebrow scale as a global spiritual leader, this is a book that could well break out of the retreat house and turn up on an airport bookstand, bearing the ancient, subversive message that “prayer always moves us to hope. . . It tells us that things can be done.”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.


Learning to Pray: A guide for everyone
James Martin
Harper Collins £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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