Over the years my conversations with Rev. James Martin have proven to be illuminating, replete with insights that can be beneficial to all regardless of their particular faith tradition. I recently spoke to Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large for America magazine, about his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.
S&H: What can those who do not call themselves Christian learn from this book?
Rev. James Martin: The book is really for everyone, not just Christians. In fact, the first sentence is the heart of the book’s message: “Everyone can pray.” God desires a relationship with each one of us, Christian or not. And there are many ways that God reaches out to us in our daily lives—through relationships, religious services, nature, and so on. But God also reaches out to us specifically in prayer. In one-on-one time with God.
Now, it’s sometimes hard for people to believe that. But I remind anyone who feels a desire for God, or an attraction to prayer, that this desire has its origin not in you but in God. The reason that you’re desiring God is because God has planted that desire in you. How else would God draw us closer? Once people realize that, they can see it as something more than themselves, and that gives them the confidence to continue seeking. As the saying goes, “That which you seek is seeking you.”
What happens when a person prays?
That’s one of the most ignored questions in spiritual life. In some books on prayer, you can read about the “fruits of prayer” or “connection with God,” and wonder, “What is that supposed to mean?” In fact, it was one thing that puzzled me when I became a Jesuit novice and was invited to pray: “What’s supposed to happen?”
In my book, I talk about what happens when you close your eyes: emotions, memories, insights, desires, words, images, feelings, and mystical experiences—and how to see these experiences as ways that God has of communicating with us. Of course, sometimes it feels like nothing is happening in prayer! Sometimes prayer is dry. And that’s both human and natural. But on a deeper level, any time spent with God in an intentional way is transformative.
How do you know what kind of prayer works best for your personality?
Mainly by testing them out. In Learning to Pray I talk about various types of “content-heavy prayer” (mainly where you are using your imagination or praying with words and phrases) and “content-light prayer” (something like centering prayer, where you try as far as possible to empty your mind of distractions). Some like content-heavy, some like content-light. But there is no one right way to pray. Whatever leads you to God is the right way to pray for you. But it’s important to be open to trying new ways to pray, so that you don’t get stuck in one way.
In our 24/7 interconnected world, how can we achieve silence, and how does this silence help us pray?
That’s an important question. I invite people to look at their relationship with God as they do a relationship with a close friend. It’s not a perfect analogy but it helps to clarify things. At some point you do need to carve out time to give a friend your undivided attention, at least if you want the relationship to go deeper. Prayer is something like that. You need to take a break from all the distractions and just be with God. As for silence, sometimes it’s hard, but it helps us to detach and focus on what’s going on inside us—more specifically, what God is doing inside of us. Sometimes to connect you have to disconnect.
How do you suggest people handle distractions they encounter when praying?
First, by not getting too angry about it! I’ve never met a person who does not in some way struggle with distractions. Of course, we have to distinguish between so-called unimportant distractions (for example, wondering what you’re going to have for dinner) and important distractions (a ruptured relationship that God might be raising up in your prayer specifically for you to look at.) Overall, though, with unimportant distractions, you try your best to let go of them. But if not, then I recommend just relaxing and saying in your prayer, “God, I’m distracted but I’m with you.”
What is nature prayer? And how does one pray with nature?
It’s what I call any prayer that uses nature to encounter God. In the book I look at several ways to use nature. First, let nature calm or delight you, as a kind of preparation to prayer. Second, enjoy nature as God’s creation. That’s pretty easy: just enjoy it! Enjoying something can be a form of prayer. Third, consider nature as an image of God. For me, I like to use the ocean as an image of God’s immensity. The ocean is not God, but it helps me to imagine God. Fourth, learn about nature. I’m something of a birdwatcher and I find the endless variety of bird’s a way to appreciate God’s creativity. Fifth, let nature teach you about God. How does God continue to create in nature? Or create in you? Sixth, look for epiphanies in nature. And finally, care for nature. All these are ways of encountering God in the natural world.
Earlier you mentioned centering prayer? How is this similar to the practices associated with Zen Buddhism, transcendental meditation, or yoga that are often done by those who do not believe in God?
Apophatic prayer (from the Greek apophatikos, which loosely means “negative”) is a way of prayer that moves away from words and images and favors a kind of emptying. It’s often called the “via negativa.” And it is quite similar in practice to Zen Buddhism, transcendental meditation, and yoga, especially in the techniques of emptying the mind, focusing on a “prayer word,” and concentrating on breathing. However, it differs from those traditions in that centering prayer has an object—and that object is God. I’m not an expert on those other traditions, but I would say that centering prayer is more about a relationship. All Christian prayer, like centering prayer, is focused, in the end, on God.