Learning to Pray

by James Martin. S.J. Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



I have known Father Martin for over fifteen years, I ‘met’ him when I was looking for an inspirational-Catholic-focused book for my Adolescent Development class. That was my graduate classes’ favorite book: Becoming Who you are. Some of the other professors liked it and read it too. Several years after I started this class, I went to the Holy Land on a Pilgrimage and read Father Martin’s book named Jesus: the Pilgrimage. It was the most influential book beside the Scriptures that I used through my trip. Father Martin has received a great gift from God for writing and for listening. One of the major points that I saw unfolding as I read the book “Learning to Pray” was his astute ability to listen to others- his listening frees others to hear his story. Father James Martin’s voice is familiar and loving. As a good Jesuit he tells us the purpose of this book: “it is meant for all faith traditions and to focus on what happens in prayer”. This book is an “invitation to both prayer and faith, because you can’t have one without the other”.


Learning to Pray is a magnificently holy book for everyone on the planet. Martin knows how to assist people in transforming their lives and being with God in all that they do. He certainly is at one with Ignatian Spirituality. I am reviewing his book so that there is an emphasis on sections that were meaningful to me personally. I’d like to start with the Chapter “Walking to School” in which Martin tells about his gentle beginnings with God. Some prayers were thanksgiving and others were petitionary. When Martin wanted to be on the safety patrol, he said a great deal of Hail Mary’s, in fact the more he wanted something the more Hail Mary’s he said. Children, he tells us, pray without the notion that there is a wrong way to do so.

In Chapter 4, Martin tells us that prayer is for everyone. There are many ways that we pray without knowing it: When you spontaneously ask God for help, you pause to think about something that inspires you; you are aware that you feel compassion; you wonder about God and wonder if He approves of your actions; you wonder about the meaning of your own life; you are aware that you are grateful; you try to “center” or connect. Martin spends significant time discussing each of these variables and helps us to feel at one with God and each other in our approach to God.


In Chapter 8, Martin unfolds for us what happens in rote prayer. At times, it was thought of as somewhat faulty but Martin says “rote prayers are valuable in many ways: we know them, they have distinguished history, they are timeless, they are comforting in that all know them and they can lead to meaningful prayer. When my granddaughter was learning the Our Father, she would stop and ask me the meaning of certain phrases which is another way of making rote prayer meaningful in hopes that we’d continue to grow in prayer. If I think about a person, I always stop to say a prayer for them.


Some time ago around 1984, Robert Bellah wrote a book called “Habits of the Heart”, in reading this text, I felt we were living the habits of the heart of Father Martin. The Daily Examen does just that- it examines the habits of the heart. Martin tells about his work in theatre and how he offered the cast The Examen of the Day. This is a prayer that St. Ignatius left for us that helps each of us see where God is active in our daily life.” It is the most helpful prayer for people starting out in the spiritual life.” Where is God affecting and moving us? Martin states: “It is an attitude more than a method.” There are 5 basic steps: “presence, gratitude, review, sorrow, and grace.” Martin lays out a way to make sure all 5 are attended to. Martin does this with consistent and constant attention to how his day unfolds. So Martin focuses on the issue of why we pray the examen: it invites us to pause and appreciate God’s presence- it helps us to notice. He states: “The examen is an antidote. When you pray the examen at the end of your difficult day, you will be reminded of that moment of grace, remember to be thankful for your friend’s embrace, perhaps remember other times you spent with your friend, and thank God.” It also helps us to see the small moments of grace that happen during our day that give us a sign of the Holy Spirit. Martin gives us excellent examples in his own life and the experiences of others.


In Chapter 10, Martin examines for us “What happens when a person prays?” Just as humans have surprising and unsurprising emotions throughout their human existence, so too in prayer. We need to ask ourselves questions such as: “What is evoking this emotion? Is the emotion related to something that is going on in my life? Is this emotion telling me something about how I perceive God? and What might the fact that this emotion came up mean for me? I believe that these questions that Martin poses help us to truly form habits of the heart that are constant and consistent. “Prayer is a conscious conversation with God” Martin, in explaining how to deal with your emotions states: “I believe that God wants to know us in our beautiful, complex, messy humanity and that emotions are part of being human.”


“If you refrain from saying what is on your mind and in your heart, a closer relationship with God may become blocked.” This relationship with God is certainly manifest in our relationship with others. God desires an intimate relationship with you and so desires your honesty. Again, it is similar to the kind of issues we relate to our best friend, everything. Martin brings us to understanding ‘insight’ as he states:…insights in prayer can be as important and transformative as emotions. Insights can also answer a thorny question or figuring out the question: What is Jesus for you? Martin provides a section on mystical experiences, that is, experiences of rare intensity in which we feel an almost overwhelming connection to God. He says defining mystical is difficult as “feeling filled with God’s presence in an intense and unmistakable way or being lifted up.”


Chapter 12 deals with the gift of imagination. This is a chapter that is in much more need of specificity than other chapters. Martin talks about the importance of giving ourselves in prayer. That is, being as present, aware, and attentive as possible while remaining open to wherever God might lead us and being willing to spend whatever time we allotted for our prayer. We use all the tools available to try to understand how the Gospels were written and edited, which Gospels rely on other Gospels, when each was written and what the communities they were writing to were like. Chapter 13 continues with praying with Sacred texts. Martin first gives us a definition of Lectio Divina which means holy reading or sacred reading which is an ancient prayer with a venerable tradition. It predates Ignatian spirituality. Martin states: “The main purpose of Lectio, besides union and communication with God is a thorough assimilation of sacred truth and a life lived according to this truth. The words you chew over become a part of you.


In reading this book, I disciplined myself to only read a portion of it each day so that the words would sink in and become part of who I am in relation to Christ. It is a book that is carefully and thoughtfully written by a holy priest of God. First, get yourself a copy, then get your friends a copy and then have everyone in your parish or circle of friends read the book. The purpose of the book holds true: to bring us closer to Christ and His Church and to each other.

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