James Martin "Learning to Pray" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world, and we invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or a thumbs-up will mean a great deal to us, and will help us reach more people.
This week, I have a wonderful guest with me, Father James Martin. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large for America magazine and author of several best-selling, award-winning books, including The Abbey, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Between Heaven and Mirth, Building a Bridge, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Father Martin frequently provides commentary in such places as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on all the major television and radio networks.
Jim, it is a great pleasure to have you with us today. And I’m so glad when I said, “What should we talk about,” you suggested we talk about learning to pray. This book that you have written, it’s a gem. It’s a practical and delightful book for everyone. I love the tone. Richard Rohr writes, “The life of prayer is essential for a believer and yet so many people feel frightened by prayer. Fear not, Jim Martin has written a brilliant introduction to prayer, which will help you encounter the living God, who wants to encounter you.” As I said, I enjoyed it so much and I loved the tone in it. I thought it was wonderful. You told me that Henri Nouwen had influenced your writing, had inspired you stylistically as well as spiritually, and that in a way, it’s in that simplicity and the clarity of that, and I found that about this book. I just found it such an easy, happy read, to be quite honest with you. Let’s start to dig into your book. Is prayer for everyone, Jim? What do you think?
James Martin: Yes! In fact, that’s the first line of the book. Everyone can pray and first of all, thank you for the nice compliments about the book. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m glad you found it a happy book. It’s about encountering God, which I think is something that brings people joy. Everyone can pray. I think the problem is that many people have found prayer dry. They don’t know what to do when they close their eyes. They don’t know what to expect, and then they end up comparing it to what they hear about other people’s prayer, and they think, “Well, I guess I’m not praying well, because nothing really happens.” They expect big, mystical moments and sometimes those come, but there’s also some times of dryness.
So, in the book, I talk about not only how to pray and offer people practices, but say what happens when you pray and what does happen and what’s supposed to happen and what you can expect, basically. So, I try to demystify it a little bit.
Karen: That may make the assumption that anybody reading this book needs to already have a sense of faith, whether it be Christian or otherwise. But you dare to say that this book is also for agnostics. Tell me a little bit about why you think that’s the case.
Jim: Well, because I think agnostics are still seekers. I think if you’re an atheist and completely don’t believe in God, then it might be a hard book for you. But I think that there are a lot of people in this world who are seeking and searching and who don’t quite know, and aren’t quite sure. And one of the invitations for them in the book is to recognize that experiences that they have already, of connection, of awe, of wonder, of desire, especially, wanting to get a sense of what more is there in life, are ways that God has of inviting them into a deeper relationship. And so I talk about how to sort of identify those times when God is calling out to you.
Karen: It’s an interesting phrase: “when ‘God is calling out to you.” Why do you think God is calling out to us? Tell me about that core bit of this that we need to feel comfortable with.
Jim: Sure. I think that most people would say that God calls them to certain things. If you talk to a married couple, they might say, “God called us together.”
And you say, “All right, well, how did God do that?”
“Well, we fell in love with each other, we were attracted to each other.”
You know, a person who is an attorney or a physician might say, “Oh, God drew me to this.”
“How did that happen?”
“Well, I was interested in it.”
And that’s the way God works: through desire. I think in the spiritual life, at the most basic level, God calls out to us by placing within us, the desire for God. You know, one of my favorite quotes is Saint Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
And I think that very restlessness is one way that God has of calling out to us. You know, I always say, “How else would God draw us closer other than to awaken in us, the desire for God?” So, that desire for prayer – and even people who are listening to this podcast must be interested in praying – is a sign that God is calling to you. And once people recognize that it’s not simply them being interested or them being curious or even them desiring a relationship with God, it’s God who takes the initiative. God’s always in charge, and I think that can be really comforting for people, because they know it’s not just them sort of launching into this quest.
Karen: It’s funny you say that, because I remember when I was a thousand miles away from God, doors all closed, an “I’m not going there,” kind of attitude in my heart. I remember I would look at a beautiful scene of nature and I would feel like there was a whisper within me, “I made that.” And I remember that being, you know, sort of drops of water on a very hard heart. But it was sort of God, I think, just continuing a conversation that I thought I had closed off, but “he’s speaking through all of creation.” I’m sure people do hear whispers within them, but doubt, “where did that come from?” And when I say whispers, I’m not really talking about an audible voice, but I’m just talking about those kinds of murmurings that happen in our inner life and in our mind and in our imagination and in our spirits.
Jim: I think that’s absolutely right. I think that the problem is that most people don’t listen to those whispers, or they think it’s . . . and you’re right, it’s not some oral voice. It’s kind of a nudge or an impulse or an intuition or an attraction or something that appeals. Or even words can kind of come into your head as you were describing, you know, “I made this” or “I created this,” and most people tend to ignore that. Or people who aren’t attuned to the spiritual life might say, “Oh, that’s just in my head,” or “That just came up and I’m not going to pay attention to it.”
And I think one of the lines that I like comes from a friend of mine, a judge who died very young. His name was Bob Gilroy. He told me once that people have experiences like that – but he really put it well – but they’re not encouraged to take them seriously. Right? They’re not encouraged, no one says to them, “Well, have you ever had an experience like that?” And so, part of it is paying attention to just the kinds of experiences you were describing.
Karen: It’s interesting, because one of the things I loved about your book was you took us back into your childhood and your experiences of somehow connecting with God. And they weren’t anything super dramatic, but they were also at the same time, they imprinted in you a possibility. And I think that’s interesting, because what do you think about childhood prayers? I mean, clearly, maybe children are more open to praying than adults are.
Jim: Yeah, and I would say first, to bring you back to your introduction: One of the reasons that I’m able to speak about my own background is Henri Nouwen. I mean, his way of speaking about his life. I would say Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton also, Dorothy Day and Kathleen Norris and other spiritual writers, but especially Henri Nouwen, who was able to talk about his life and use it as a kind of illustration for what can happen in the spiritual life. But to answer your question, I was able to identify in my childhood – I mean, I think most people can, if they look carefully enough – moments of God’s presence and, as you say, I wasn’t particularly religious. But I think if most of us look back and sort of mine our childhood or even our young life, we can see those moments.
And I do think that children are more open to that, and why is that? It’s because they don’t have as many expectations put down on them or burdening them about what the spiritual life should be or could be. And so, they just talk naturally about their experiences of God, which I find really charming. And eventually they might feel self-conscious about that as they get older, but I think children are naturally religious. I think human beings are naturally religious and that’s what we see in kids.
Karen: That’s interesting. As you write this book – you obviously wrote it for a reason – why do you think we should pray?
Jim: Yeah. Well, the main reason is because God desires it, because God has planted it in us, that desire for a relationship. But from our point of view, it’s to enter into a deeper relationship with God who desires you. I sometimes say to people, “Well, who is God in your life?”
And they say, “Oh, God’s the most important thing in my life.”
“Well, how much one-on-one time do you spend with God?”
“Oh, well, not a whole lot.”
And so, I often say, “If you said to me, ‘So-and-so is the most important person in your life,’ a spouse or a parent or a best friend, and then you said, ‘I never spend any one-on-one time with that person,’ you would say, ‘Well, what’s up with that relationship?”
And so, prayer is one-on-one time with God, who wants to be in relationship with us. And that’s basically what it is for me. In the book, I call it, “‘conscious conversation with God” that can happen in many different ways.
Karen: Yeah, you do kind of suggest a whole number of ways. And one of the things I’m so struck by, I mean, you’ve been a Jesuit now for, is it 30 years? You’ve been a Jesuit for a long time, and the reality being, you’ve probably been well-schooled in prayer, I would imagine. You’ve probably learned and read and all of that. What kinds of things would you want to say to others as they say, “Okay, I’m going to try” Or there may be people listening to this that say, “Yeah, I am a believer and I do pray, but what have you got for me? How could that become richer or deeper or more significant in my life?”
Jim: Well, one thing that the book does is to offer you different ways of praying. So, most people have one way that they like to pray, right? I like the rosary or I like my contemplative prayer or my centering prayer or my Ignatian contemplation, or this is it. And in fact, I’ve run into people like that on retreats.
I’ve said, “Well, let’s try this.”
“No, this is the way I like to pray.”
Which is fine, but if you compare that to a relationship, this is an insight from Father Bill Berry, a Jesuit priest who died recently. His great insight was that you could compare a relationship with God to a relationship with a friend, and so sort of to help you gauge that, and if you said, “The only way I relate to my friend is by going out to dinner every single week on Friday,” you could say, “Well, that’s nice, to go out to dinner every single week on Friday, but are there other ways that you could relate to your friend, maybe taking a walk on a beach or going on a trip or watching a movie together or writing letters or whatever?”
And the same goes with prayer, which is that there are other ways of praying. The other thing is that there’s no right way to pray. The right way to pray is the way that brings you closer to God. And then finally, I think the thing that is most confusing to people, which was most confusing to me, and one of the reasons I wrote this book, one of the main reasons, was to actually talk about what happens when you pray. Like, what are you talking about when people say, “oh, the fruits of prayer,” or “I felt close to God” – what does that mean? And so, I talk about, specifically, what actually comes up in prayer.
Karen: James, I’m just going to say at this point, just for our broader audience: Not everybody’s Catholic and they may not pray the rosary or even know what the Examen is. This book is for everyone. I got so much out of it. That’s not my religious tradition, but I just enjoyed it because it just challenges me to enter into an intimacy with God, and I actually loved learning about the Examen, and I have to tell you, that’s going to be my new prayer thing. I’m going after that. But let’s go back a step, and you tell me what are people going to experience in prayer.
Jim: Right. So, the question is: “What happens when you pray?” And when I was a Jesuit novice, I was invited to start praying in a particular way, and I thought, “Well, what’s supposed to happen?” I mean, I think that’s the big mystery: “Okay, I close my eyes and now what?” And so I talk about the emotions that come up, right? Sadness, joy, anger, sometimes when you’re reading a scripture passage. Insights, I mean, literally intellectual insights that sort of get solved in your mind sometimes, or problems that are solved. Feelings, desires, right, a desire to live a holy life, a desire to learn more about Jesus or about God. Words and phrases that come up, mystical experiences, feelings of calm. And I talk about those as the fruits of prayer, things that sometimes happen, sometimes don’t. Prayer can be dry. And then talk about ways of discerning whether or not they’re coming from God or not, because not every thought that comes into your mind is a big message from God.
I quote a friend, a book who says: “Not every time a leaf falls in front of you on the sidewalk is it God’s communication.” But in prayer, when you’re really attentive to God, and God is with you in a different way, you need to pay attention to what comes up. And so, a big part of the book is saying what actually happens, because I really have felt – I mean, I’ll confess this – I have felt frustrated by books that I read years ago, when I was first starting all this, that would just talk about, “Yes, and then when you do this, you’ll feel a sense of closeness.” Well, what does that mean? What are you talking about? Or when God speaks to you or communicates and you think, “Well, what does that mean? Is that supposed to mean I’m supposed to hear voices or see visions?” And no, the answer is no. It’s much more subtle. And so, I talk about some of those subtle ways in the book to help people really get a handle on what’s happening.
Karen: You write, and I thought it was very significant, that in a sense, we can miss having an adult spirituality because we just stay with our childhood spirituality. Maybe that’s where our prayers have kind of ended, whether it’s just petition prayers or it’s “Now I lay me down to sleep,”
or it’s the reality of a grace that we’ve said every single day at every single meal. Tell me about what you think we’re called into.
Jim: Well, I think we’re called into an adult relationship with God, and that doesn’t mean we are any less reverend or awestruck or humble before God. But if you pray the same way that you did, there are certain prayers that obviously will still work. I mean, I still say the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and there’s nothing wrong with those prayers. I’m just saying that, if you approach your adult life with a child’s spirituality, you’re going to be frustrated. I think I compare it in the book to math, right? I mean, it’s important to know your times tables and how to add and how to subtract, but if that’s all you know, then you might be struggling. Or if all you know about the English language or whatever language you speak is what you’ve learned in grammar school,
you might struggle a little bit. So, it’s just a reminder that we need an adult spirituality, which sometimes means basically just experiencing new prayers and being open to the new ways that God has in store for you. That’s one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a Jesuit named Carlos Vallés: “If you always imagine God in the same way, no matter how good and how beautiful, you’ll never be open to the new ways that God has in store for you.” Right? And so, we’ll also relate to God in a different way, as we get older, because we’re different people.
Karen: Yeah. I have a certain kind of prayer that I remember from a certain period of my life. I wouldn’t say it’s as frequent now, but I call it my propeller prayers. I would be propelled from my bed in the middle of the night, sheer fear and anxiety overwhelming me. How was I going to solve the world I was living in, and how was I going to survive? And those were in the middle of the night, screams for God. “‘Are you there? Are you there, God?” And I look back and I say, you know, it’s okay to scream at God and cry, “Where are you? Will you come into my mess and make something of it?”
I would imagine today, as we’re talking and we know people are experiencing some of the horrors and fallout of this pandemic, I can imagine there are people in the middle of the night going, “How am I going to survive?” What would you say to them about prayer?
Jim: I would say, God wants your honesty, and that if we look in the gospels, we see people who are constantly coming up to Jesus and asking him for help, right? I mean, the disciples do it all the time. The story of the storm at sea, where the disciples are on a boat in the middle of a raging storm, in the sea of Galilee. They say, “Don’t you care about us?” I mean, Jesus is asleep and that’s the disciples, who knew Jesus. So, look, if the disciples could express their fear with Jesus right in front of them, certainly we can express our fear. And you look at the history of the Psalms, you know, the Psalms crying out, “How long, oh Lord,” in Psalm 13, “How long will you forget me forever?” So, God I think, not only can handle our honesty, even our anger or our fear, as you were saying, but God wants it. It’s part of being in an honest relationship, because what happens if you’re in a relationship where you say only the things that you think you should say? Well, then the relationship gets cold and distant and formal, and so this is just an encouragement to people to be honest in prayer.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I recall in the midst of one of those very intense prayer times for me, where I was basically screaming my pain at God, I opened the Bible and I got, “Come, let us argue together.” And I thought, “My God is big. I can voice my pain and he’s not afraid of it, and he has something for me.” So, I would encourage people. But it does lead us to the question: Why are some prayers not answered?
Jim: Well, that’s a good question, and I talk about that also in the book. Basically, what I try to do is look at the responses to that question that are largely unsatisfactory. So, one response is, “Well, God always answers your prayers, but with something better.” Well, okay, sometimes, right? But if you’re talking to the parents of a child who has died of cancer, are you going to say, “Oh, that was better than having the child cured?” I mean, that’s pretty monstrous. Or “God answers your prayer, but the answer is no,” right? And that’s also pretty harsh to say to a family, right, who’s lost a child or any sort of loved one. Or, “God answers your prayers, but it’s hard to see how.” And then that makes God out to be almost this kind of trickster or puzzle master. You’re supposed to figure it out.
And in the end, really, why some prayers, let’s say, seem to be answered and seem not to be answered is a mystery, right? And I think we really need to be blunt about that. It’s very hard because Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive,” right? It sounds like whatever you ask for in prayer, you will get, and that is clearly not the case, right? No matter how much you try to argue that that’s actually true. I mean, my father died in 2001 from lung cancer. I prayed for him to be healed. He wasn’t. So, it wasn’t answered. Now, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t with me, God wasn’t with my father, God isn’t with my family. God consoles us, God accompanies us, God leads us, but that particular prayer was not answered – at least, as far as I could see.
And I think that the final answer is why some prayers are answered or seem to be answered, and other prayers don’t seem to be answered, is a mystery. That is something that is beyond us. So, the invitation is to believe in a God that we don’t understand, and that’s the invitation. And even the disciples when they were around Jesus, they didn’t quite understand him. But, so that’s the invitation, that’s where faith comes in. But I think it’s really important to be clear about that with people and not give them fake answers and say, “Well, it’s something better.” I think that kind of is pretty monstrous for people in really difficult situations.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I love that passage that God describes himself as the God of all comfort, and all I can think of is that somehow when we experience loss that is devastating and doesn’t seem like any kind of answer to our prayer, it is the hope that God will comfort. I don’t think it’s fast or instant or whatever, but I do believe that it’s part of God’s nature to come to the lowest places that we are.
Jim: Oh, I agree, and I think, for the Christian, if you look at Jesus, you see a God that understands us, not only because he’s divine and knows all things, but also because he is human and experienced all things. When we pray to Jesus and when Jesus is with us through the Spirit in prayer, he is someone who understands these things. I mean, to take my own example of my father, Jesus’s foster father, Joseph, most likely died before Jesus’s public ministry began, because he’s not on the scene in any of the miracle stores or in Jesus’s public ministry. And so Jesus understands this, and so it is a God who is with us, as you say, the God of all comfort.
Karen: It’s interesting, because somebody who had to face that was C.S. Lewis. I happened to do a documentary on Lewis, and obviously he was so challenged by the death of Joy. He had married late in life and this was an incredible, wonderful marriage they had, for a brief time, and she experienced healing from cancer. And then she died after that, and it was a devastating time for him. I love a quote that you have in there: “Prayer, it does not change God; it changes me.” I think that’s an interesting aspect. How do you feel prayer has changed you, Jim?
Jim: Well, I would say first, I struggle with that quote. I think it does change us, and I don’t think we can “change God,” but I think it’s important for us to express our needs to God, and ask for, let’s say, God’s help. That might be a better way of saying it. Because I think sometimes that quote is used to say, almost, “Don’t pray,” or “Don’t expect God to help you.” But I think it’s changed me by basically making me more aware of the presence of God in my life. Right? So, the Examen prayer, which you’ve mentioned, which is a review of the day – a very simple prayer, I think I call it the easiest prayer – is a way of seeing where God is present, and so it just makes you more attentive.
When I was growing up, I think I thought of God as sort of the great problem-solver or like a cosmic gumball machine, to use an old-fashioned analogy, where you’d pray and pray and pray, and maybe once in a while a prayer would be answered out of the blue. But the idea that God would want to be in a relationship with you, that God would be present to you every day, that you would be able to see signs of God and his presence – I thought, well, that’s crazy. I’m not Jesus, I’m not some saint. So that’s really the main way that it’s changed me. It’s made me more aware of God’s presence in my day and in the days of other people, too. So, I do a lot of what’s called “spiritual direction,” helping people understand their prayers.
Karen: Well, I know I’ve gained a lot from this book, so I’m going to encourage people to get it. I think it’s great, and as I said, I love the whole chapter on the daily examen. That is something I want to try out and live. Maybe I have done it in an unconscious way, but I found it very helpful just to see what is included in that. Maybe you would just quickly say what are the parts of the Examen?
Jim: Sure. So, the Examen is a review of the day to see where God has been. And you start by placing yourself in the presence of God as you’d do in any prayer, which is just sort of calling to mind God’s presence. And then you start with gratitude and just call up the things to mind that you are grateful for in the day – a piece of good news, a nice phone call, a good meal, a good night’s sleep or a nap – and you give thanks to God for those things. We start with gratitude to really ground us in that and remind us of God’s blessings. And then you review the day, start to finish. You go from the morning, noon and night, and just try to see where you have felt God’s presence, where you feel like you’ve encountered God.
And then having gone through the day, you’ll probably see places that you see yourself committing sins, or some sort of failings. You ask for forgiveness, and then you ask for God’s grace for the next day. So, it’s really a review, and it’s often easier to see where God was in the past, right? I mean, oftentimes people say about something that happened years ago, “Oh, now I can see where God was.” Well, that’s the insight of the examen, which is to notice those things in the day that has just passed. It’s very simple, usually about 10 or 15 minutes and people do it at the end of the day and it really helps to jumpstart your spiritual life.
Karen: I like it; it made sense to me. Now, we’re going into Lent. This podcast is going to play the week that Lent begins. Tell me a little bit: What are your Lenten traditions and how do you welcome people into this? What is Lent? Let’s start with that, and then how do you welcome people into Lent?
Jim: Sure. Lent is the 40-day period before Easter. It’s a time of preparation and we prepare ourselves for – I mean, Christ has already risen from the tomb. We have to always remember that he’s already risen – but we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter. And often, it’s a time of deepening of one’s spiritual life. Repentance, of course. A lot of people try to give things up. I think it’s a great time. I think Lent and Advent are great times for trying to get your spiritual life in order. Now for me, I think it can go beyond simply giving up chocolate, right? I mean, which is fine, right, if you’re trying to make yourself healthy. But I tend to encourage people to do sort of more positive things, meaning rather than giving something up, to try to, for example, be more kind. That’s the thing I usually try to suggest, for people to just be kinder, just be more generous. And I tend to think – I’m not going to speak on behalf of God – but I would tend to think that Jesus would probably would like something like that more than giving up chocolate, right? I think in the scheme of things, to be more generous and more kind and more loving is probably something that God wants more, so there’s lots of different ways of preparing for Lent. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on the last couple of years, being more kind.
Karen: It’s interesting. I’m going to encourage people. Here’s a wonderful book you could bring into your life during this time, but it will be something that may actually be a turning point for you, in the ways that you have opened us up to prayer in this book, Learning to Pray. I think it could be such a valuable tool. One of the things we’re doing at the Henri Nouwen Society is we have book discussions a few times in the year. And during Lent, we’re doing a book discussion from Henri’s book, The Sabbatical Journey, and anybody can enter in; it’s an online discussion. What I thought was very interesting: I learned from speaking with Michael Christiansen recently about the book Discernment, that a great deal of what he drew in that book came from Henri’s journals, because only maybe a third of what Henri wrote in his journals actually ends up in the books that are published.
But what he said was, what you find is the discernment of how to hear God – “What direction am I to go in?” – and that’s a big thing about prayer. We want to know, ”God, am I in the right place? Where am I going? Is there anything changing? Lift my eyes from being just absorbed with the petty to something bigger in life.” So, I would invite people into that. I also would like to suggest that people could join you. You have, is it, every day at 3 o’clock you have an online ministry?
Jim: It’s actually now every Friday at 3:00 PM Eastern time. It used to be every day, but it got to be overwhelming. It started when the pandemic started in the middle of March, I think around Lent. It must’ve been still Lent or maybe right after Easter, and it’s on my Facebook page, Father James Martin. And every Friday at 3:00 PM Eastern time, we look at the Sunday gospel reading and then just open that up and talk about the events of the day. So, we usually have about a thousand people and a lot of people comment. It’s a nice community that we’ve built up. I didn’t expect to do it for so long, but people enjoy it and I enjoy it, too. So, it’s a nice way to share our faith and to talk about the gospels.
Karen: I will join you on Friday. I’m going to be listening in. I think it’s a good idea and I recommend it to everyone. And I thank you, Jim. You’re such a good friend to the Henri Nouwen Society. I know Henri has been an influence on your life and that feeds through in what you share. And I just thank you so much for the ways in which you continue to kind of open our eyes and give us new ideas about how to live out our faith. And this book, Learning to Pray, is a really good one.
Jim: Well thanks, and it’s my pleasure, and it’s wonderful to be able to give back to the Henri Nouwen Society after all you’ve done for me, and after all Henri has done for me in my own spiritual life. So, thank you very much.
Karen: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jim. I really appreciate all that you’ve shared. Thank you.
I hope you come away from this interview with Father James Martin as inspired and as encouraged as I was. I highly recommend his book, Learning to Pray. It’s one that’s a real treasure and it will open you up to new ideas and new possibilities.
If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs-up, or even share it with your friends and family. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes on our website for any content, resources or books discussed in this episode. There’s even a link for books to get you started, in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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