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Father James Martin on Why Prayer Is So Hard

Father James Martin on Why Prayer Is So Hard

Father James Martin is one of America’s best-known and best-loved priests. The best-selling author is a go-to figure for numerous cable news programs and late night hosts, famous for his kindly and witty demeanor. His friendship with Stephen Colbert has helped propel him to numerous high-profile gigs but this Jesuit priest remains an amicable and humble interpreter of lofty spiritual truths for people curious about Catholic teaching on modern living.

His most recent book Learning to Pray: A Guide For Everyone strips prayer of its austerity, finding honesty in the mystery and warmth in its ubiquity. He told us why he believes everyone can pray, why “I don’t know” is such an important part of understanding prayer and why remembering that God wants to be your friend is key to a healthy prayer life.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why a book on prayer?

Well, I wrote a book called The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything six or seven years ago, and that’s about Jesuit spirituality. There was a lot about prayer in there, but I always wanted to do a big book on prayer. I think people feel that they don’t know how to pray, that they can’t pray, that they’re not good at prayer. I hear these things all the time, and it makes me sad, because prayer is for everybody. The first line of the book is really important for me, which is, “Everyone can pray.” 

Why do you think it is that people have a hard time feeling like prayer is available to their skill set?

People feel like nothing’s happening when they pray. They close their eyes and nothing happens, or they get bored or they get distracted. Like, “What am I supposed to feel or experience?” 

The second thing is, they tend to compare themselves to people. You hear someone say, “Oh, I never go a day without my prayer and my devotions.” And you think, “Well, what’s that person experiencing? I don’t experience that.” 

Then there’s a portion of the population that feels that they’re unworthy, they’re not holy enough and that prevents people from praying.. 

Some hypothetical prayer scenarios. Let’s say someone’s grandma comes down with COVID. People pray for her and she gets better and everyone says “prayer works!” But what about other grandmas who don’t get better? Was somebody just not praying for them? Is it even worth getting into these tensions?

It is worth it, because it’s a really important part of the spiritual life that gets ignored and people struggle with it. Like, “Why don’t I get what I pray for?” I go through a lot of the answers in my book. 

Here’s the traditional answer you get: “Well, you do get what you pray for, but you just can’t see it. You got something else.” In this example, God is almost a trickster where you have to figure out how it is that He answers your prayer. But if you pray for your grandmother and they get sick and die, you can reasonably say, “My prayer was not answered. I didn’t get what I prayed for.” 

So here’s another answer you hear: “God is giving you something better.” I think that fails too. Imagine, to take a horrible example, you pray for a child who’s dying, and they die. Now, you’re going to say to that person, “Oh, God’s giving you something better.” That’s a terrible thing to say to somebody. 

Or maybe someone tells you “your prayer was answered, and the answer was no.” That also makes God out to be almost like a sadist. especially when Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive.” 

It is clear that people don’t seem to get what they asked for at times. For me, the most honest answer to that question is “we don’t know.” We do not know why this happens, why this grandmother lives and other people die. I think that’s the most honest answer.

But we still believe in a God, even though we don’t understand God. It’s OK to have that mystery to not understand and to continue to believe in God. 

There’s that famous C.S. Lewis line about how “I don’t pray to change God’s mind, I pray to change my own,”: or something to that effect. 

C.S. Lewis is the spiritual master. I agree that when we pray, we are changed. I mean, we’re brought into contact with God, which is always transformative. But also, if you’re praying for, “I want the homeless to get a good meal,” you start to say, “Well, maybe I’m the one who needs to change and to help the person.” That’s a good thing.

But by the same token, I think that can prevent people from praying honestly. I think that can kind of frustrate our relationship with God. It’s important for us to pray and to ask for what we want. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane says, “Remove this cup.” He’s asking for something. 

In the book, I talk about three parts of prayer, which is from a Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, one of which is honesty. So we’re honest, like Jesus was honest in the Garden. We trust that God hears us, but then also we accept what comes.

I mean, Jesus says not my will, but your will be done. I think in those situations, you have to pray those prayers. It’s just part of being honest with God. 

Something you hear a lot of people say is that it’s important to not just ask God for stuff. You have to take time to praise Him too but, of course, that doesn’t come as naturally to us as “please help me.” How can we foster that spirit?

I think that if you are praying a prayer in a sense of gratitude, it sometimes comes more easily. I’m not going to say to someone, “Don’t praise God.” That’s for sure. But I’m also not going to say that if you don’t praise God, your prayers are somehow not heard. So for example, someone who is sick, it’s very hard for them to praise God. So I think starting off with gratitude, “Thank you God, for what you’ve given me. Thank you for the blessings. Thank you for just the gift of life. I’m really grateful to be in relationship with you,” that’s a praise to the kinds of things that God has done. I think it’s healthy. But I think if you don’t do it, it’s not as if you’re being disrespectful.

However, I would say, if you never praise God and are never grateful, then there is something a little off. Is it all just asking for things? 

In the book, I talk about prayer as a relationship. So let’s say you and I go out to dinner or something, and all I do is ask you for favors. You would say, “That’s a little weird.” Or all I do is praise you, “Oh, you’re so generous. You’re so talented.” That’s weird too. 

I think it needs to be a mix of things. It needs to be a full relationship. 

I feel like a lot of people’s default is not to really think of God in terms of a relationship. Why does that happen?

Because it’s too familiar. “Why would God want a relationship with me? Who am I?” Of course, that ignores all of salvation history. God wants a relationship with all of us, right? But also because I think they feel that it’s kind of disrespectful. Like, “I shouldn’t even begin to think about God in terms of a friendship or relationship,” but it can really help your spiritual life. 

What does a good relationship need? Well, it requires time. Imagine saying, “This person is the most important person in my life.” “How much time do you give him or her?” “Well, none.” It requires being open, it requires change, it requires some comfortable experiences of silence. So all the things you can say about a good friendship, you can say about a good relationship with God.


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