Listening to the interviews with George Floyd’s family, friends and witnesses in Minneapolis after the guilty verdict in the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, I was touched by how often prayer was part of the conversation. A civil rights activist was tearing up as he was thanking God that he had lived long enough to see a victory – which he had fought for his whole life. A 90-year old woman said; “that’s my prayer,” as she voiced hope that this verdict will help us see justice as a society – “I’m praying that it will.” Daniella Frazier, the teen-ager who recorded the crucial video, posted her prayer on Facebook; ‘THANK YOU GOD THANK YOU . . . justice has been served!” These and the prayers of many others reacting to the verdict reveal just how much prayer has been the hope and sustenance for the black community in their everyday communication.
This spurred me to look at my prayer life and challenged me to finally read the 386-page book I purchased for my Lenten reflection this year: Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone by New York Times bestselling author, Father James Martin, SJ. I have dipped into many books on prayer in the 36 years I have been a spiritual director – and I am well aware that reading about prayer is not the same as praying! I felt the need of a refresher. I wanted to have a prayer life as vital and intimate as the people interviewed in the aftermath of the trial.
James Martin did not disappoint me. I have read his columns and books, listened to his television interviews and found him to be articulate, practical, wise and even funny. Martin begins his book by giving samples of his own experience of prayer, beginning with childhood, which of course invites the reader to look at his/ her own background. I remember memorizing the Our Father while sitting on my father’s lap. I first heard the 23rd Psalm when my Lutheran best friend, Deanna, stayed overnight at my house on a Saturday. She had to have the psalm memorized for Sunday school the next morning. I memorized it with her – and still not only remember it but still find it consoling.
Though memorized prayers have not been “in vogue” in recent times I recall a key moment when the Our Father was the only prayer I could say. It was a cold January night. I was pregnant with my third child and in the hospital with an unproductive labor. The medical staff gave me something to stop the labor for the night and told my husband to go home to our other children. It made sense, but I was terrified to be “alone.” In those moments, I repeated the Our Father over and over until I was comforted enough to fall asleep. I would guess many of us who memorized prayers have found them a way to communicate with God in uncertain or intense circumstances.
Over the years I have been exposed to many kinds of prayer. Praying with scripture passages, a part of the Spiritual Exercises, was for me, a profound introduction to the Bible – which for a Catholic Child prior to Vatican II, wasn’t part of the curriculum of Catechism studies. Later as I went on to study the Bible, I found out that though I enjoyed the study, it didn’t touch me in the same way as praying with scriptures did.
One of Father Martin’s assertions is that “God wants to be in a relationship with us. And we know that because we have the desire to pray – deep within us is a desire to communicate with God”. Our next step is to find ways of prayer that work for us.
How often have we said to someone going through a difficulty, “I will pray for you.” Or how often have we asked for prayers. Petitionary prayers have a long history in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. “Give us this day our daily bread,” is embedded in the Our Father. Martin answers the question, “So what do we pray for?”
“To my mind, we can pray for anything good that we might need. Let’s remember that one reason we pray is because we need to. How could we not ask for help in the face of life’s misfortunes?”
He goes on to say, “Quite apart from any help others receive from our prayers on their behalf, it is we who are changed. Prayer transforms us!”
Centering Prayer has been growing as a prayer practice in the last 50 years, though it is part of ancient spiritual traditions of the West. James Martin reminds us of the book, Finding Grace at the Center, by Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating and Thomas E. Clarke. First published in 1978, people all over the world welcomed this practical guide to a simple and beautiful form of meditative prayer. The reflections and advice on Centering Prayer and its pitfalls are presented with clarity as well as a vision of the deeper life of the soul that contemplative prayer can bring about.
I have only scratched the surface of the prayer possibilities James Martin has presented in his comprehensive book. A sampling of the topics he addresses: What happens when you pray? Discovering God in Creation; Praying with poetry and scripture; Journaling as prayer; Distractions, Dryness and the ups and downs of the spiritual life. His focus is on personal, not communal prayer. This unimaginable year we have been living through has certainly alerted us to the need to find ways to connect with our God. Prayer should not be our last resort, it should be our daily bread.