Very good review in Christian Century of Fr. James Martin’s new book on prayer! Author of several popular books on Jesuit spirituality and editor-at-large of America magazine, Martin has written about prayer before — frequently, but in passing. His latest book, Prayer: A Guide for Everyone, appears to pull those thoughts together for newbies and non-Catholics like me. So it’s definitely on my reading list. In the meantime, the book review helps me pull together my thoughts about Martin — call it an introduction to his introduction.
By L. Roger Owens of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the review is headlined “James Martin Offers a Primer on Prayer.” It’s a good introduction to Martin’s approach, which is part and parcel of his Jesuit spiritual formation. Owens writes:
Though the book is subtitled “A Guide for Everyone,” Martin writes with beginners in mind. A winsome and gentle guide, he lowers the bar for those who seek a life with God but struggle to begin or persevere. While he discusses the pros and cons of many traditional definitions of prayer, in the end he offers his own simple definition: “Prayer is a conscious conversation with God.” He appreciates more expansive accounts of prayer that affirm that all of life can become prayer, but he focuses his attention on those intentional times set aside for communicating with God.
I haven’t read the new book, of course, but Martin has been my go-to guy on spirituality since my spiritual director, a Dominican sister, steered me in his direction in 2018. I’ve read his Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything at least twice all the way through; and I keep a copy handy when I need to look up something like lectio divina or the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius in the index.
And one of the things I look up in the index, which I do so often that I’ve reinforced the book’s spine with clear duct tape, is prayer. I grew up with the sense that if I tried to pray and it wasn’t sprinkled with thee’s and thou’s — or, better yet, read verbatim from the forms of family prayer in the Episcopal prayer book so I wouldn’t get sidetracked — it wasn’t a real prayer. So Martin’s idea (and Ignatius’) that prayer is a two-way conversation with God was liberating.
It’s still easy for me to get sidetracked — or let my puppy-like attention span lead me down spiritual rabbit holes — but Martin cuts to the chase. So does Roger Owens’ review. One point immediately stands out, but I’ll quote it in context:
One chapter in particular stands out. “What Happens When You Pray?” looks at emotions, insights, memories, desires, images, words, feelings, and other experiences that arise during prayer. The longest chapter, it will likely be the most helpful for more experienced readers. Pastors, spiritual directors, and those who teach prayer will benefit from its comprehensiveness. For instance, when Martin considers how to tell whether the words one senses interiorly during prayer are from God, he suggests that messages from God will be short, surprising, and to the point; they’ll make sense and leave their mark: “If they are authentic, they strike your soul in such a way as to make an indelible impression.” Though beginners might feel overwhelmed by this chapter (all of those things can go on in prayer!?), others will appreciate the chapter’s thoroughness.
Short, surprising and to the point. I like that. It cuts to the chase.
In an interview I keep coming back to in America magazine, Martin says, “[n]ot everything that pops into your mind is from God,” but swiftly adds, anything that “builds you up, encourages you, gives you hope, is probably coming from God.” Citing Ignatius, he adds God’s voice “has the ring of authenticity.” But Owens takes it a step further — and, well, it’s short, surprising and to the point.
So how does a lapsed-Anglican-turned-Lutheran spiritual mutt find direction in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? I’m not sure I can answer that, but there’s a story in Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Amost) Everything I really like. It’s one of those shaggy-dog stories involving a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit. They’re all three on retreat, and the lights go out. So the Franciscan thanks God for the chance to live more simply, and the Dominican works up a learned homily on living without the light. And the Jesuit? He goes down in the basement and changes the fuse.
Jesuits, says Martin, are practical.
Another story: This one I read 20-odd years ago in Christian Century, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here. It’s another Franciscan-Dominican-and-Jesuit story. It seems the three of them are arguing about which is the best religious order. After a while they decide to seek discernment, or, as we say in the Protestant churches, “Let’s pray on it.” They do, and immediately a thundercloud comes billowing up. There’s a flash of lightning, a crack of thunder and the clouds open up.
In a shaft of sunlight reaching down from the heavens, a scrap of paper comes fluttering down to earth, and they rush over to see what it says. They read: “In answer to your question, the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits all seek to do my will on earth, and all have equal favor in my sight.” And it’s signed, “God, SJ.”
A Catholic in-joke? Not entirely. I saw that story in a column by Martin Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister and emeritus professor of church history at the University of Chicago. This Jesuit spirituality stuff isn’t just for Jesuits. Or Catholics. It’s ecumenical. In fact, Roger Owens, who wrote the review of Martin’s Learning to Pray, is an ordained Methodist minister who teaches spiritual formation at a Presbyterian theological seminary. And I think one of the reasons Jesuit spirituality is so appealing across different faith traditions is because it’s practical.
At least that’s why it appeals to me.
There’s something else, too, and I think Owens clarified it for me in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before. After I started with a spiritual director, I learned the ancient practice of lectio divina, which predates the Jesuits by a thousand years or more.
By that time I was reading Father Martin — I already knew about him from reading America magazine — and I was delighted to find an article of his that simplified lectio for busy people who don’t have time to incense, candles and the trappings of meditation. He sums it up in four words: Read, Think, Pray, Act. I liked that. But I noticed other guides were more contemplative. The Dominican Sisters of Springfield, for example, have a four-step mnemonic for lectio: Read, reflect, respond and rest. “Rest, and let the Word rest in you.” Well, yes, but I don’t want to let it trail off into navel-gazing.
Anyway, reading Roger Owens’ review of Father Martin’s new book, I’m reminded of something that had slipped my mind. It’s possible to do both. It’s not only possible, it’s part of what Owens discusses as Martin’s Jesuit formation. He says:
[…] in the chapter on lectio divina, I was surprised that Martin replaces the tradition’s final movement—contemplation—with action. A spiritual practice that for hundreds of years has invited those praying into an experience of resting in God has been amended to fit a Jesuit commitment to contemplation in action.
I would liken it to going downstairs and fixing my spiritual fusebox. “What do I want to do, based on my prayer?” says Martin in his four-easy-steps guide to lectio. “Finally, you act.”
Forms of Prayer to be used in Families,” US Book of Common Prayer (1928) http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/Family_Prayer.htm.
“Lectio Divina,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina.
James Martin, “An Introduction to Ignatian Contemplation,” interview with Sean Salai, SJ, America, Sept. 21, 2016 https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/easing-contemplation.
__________. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. New York: HarperOne, 2010), 2.
__________. “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps,” The Word Among Us, Nov. 2007 https://www2.wau.org/archives/article/read_think_pray_act/default2.htm.
L. Roger Owens, “James Martin Offers a Primer for Prayer,” review of Learning to Pray, by James Martin SJ, Christian Century June 7, 2021 https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/james-martin-offers-primer-prayer.
“Praying with Scripture,” Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois https://springfieldop.org/praying-with-scripture/.
[Published June 29, 2021]