Arts and Culture

Why We Must Pray

Second in a series

Frequently while reading Father James Martin’s Learning to Pray (New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp. 386, $27.99) I had the experience of coming upon an insight that I immediately thought would be beneficial to me when I pray. Often the insight seemed relatively obvious to me.

Was it an insight that I previously had? Could it be an insight that I had forgotten? My guess is that I had fallen into bad habits when I pray and somehow the insight had gotten lost. An example of what seemed like a new insight is that God wants me to pray even more than I want to pray. Father Martin writes the following:

“Where does the desire to pray come from? From God. The most common way God draws you closer is by placing within you the desire to be closer, the desire that drove you to think about prayer and to read this book. Strange as it sounds, your reading of these lines at this time is a sign of God’s call.

How else would God draw us closer, other than by planting a longing inside us? Once I saw a ceramic plaque in a retreat house that summed this up: ‘That which you seek is causing you to seek.’…

Your desire to pray is a sign that God desires you. It’s an indication God is calling you. And that is perhaps the most important reason to pray. Not simply because you desire it, but because the desire is a sign of something else. You desire to pray because God desires it” (pp.27-28).

Why did this insight leap off the page at me? Everything I believe about God should make it obvious to me that God wants me to pray. If I asked Father Martin why it leaped off the page at me my guess is that he would say it was a special grace from God. It’s more than a little awesome that the eternal, all-powerful God, the Father of Jesus, desires that Bob Lauder prays to him. Among the millions and millions of people who inhabit the earth God wants me to consciously turn my heart and mind toward him. God’s desire for that is singling me out among millions and millions of others. I find that amazing. Though I cannot prove that is true that my insight was from God, I believe it was. The reason I believe that the insight is from God is that the insight will help me pray. It would seem that because God wants me to pray, it makes a great deal of sense that God would provide an insight, a grace, or a blessing that will help me to pray. I hope that is true about other insights I receive while re-reading Learning to Pray.

Offering his own definition of prayer, Father Martin writes the following:

“Here’s the way I like to define prayer:

Prayer is conscious conversation with God.

For me, prayer is intentional one-on-one time with God. It occurs in the context of personal relationship with God, but more specifically, it is what happens when you are intentionally trying to speak with, listen to, or be with God. It’s a conversation, as St. Teresa says, and a sharing. And it’s more conscious, more intentional, about that conversation than at other times when you are less focused on God. For me, praying means intending to pray…

No one definition can fully sum up prayer, but each one captures something important about it. It is a raising up of our minds and hearts; a surge of the heart; a sharing between friends; a long, loving look at the real; and a conscious conversation, all of which happens in the context of a personal relationship with God. In time, you’ll come up with your own definition of prayer. More important, you’ll experience prayer… And experiencing it is more important than defining it. As with love, learning to practice it is more important than knowing the right definition.” (pp.54,59)

I am not sure what I expected when I decided to read Learning to Pry. Probably I thought that reading a book about prayer seemed an ideal way to spend time during the pandemic. Add to that I very much like Father Martin’s ideas and have profited from reading other books by him. It seems in God’s providence, I received more than I expected.

It seemed as though every time I read a few pages I was either inspired or provoked to think about prayer in a way I had not thought about prayer previously. I am writing this series of columns hoping that I might encourage others to read the book. I suspect that even to disagree with Father Martin about some point he is making might profit the reader.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.

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