On Having a Prayer Life: a book review

I had a mentor once who warned me of the danger of reading about prayer without praying. There is no shortage of books on prayer which describe prayer’s power, methodology, theology and practice. I have found many of these books thought-provoking and a few inspiring. But some books remain opaque to me–either too deep for me to grasp with my own shallow practice of prayer or too dry to set my heart ablaze. Mary Kate Morse has written a book on prayer which is theologically rich, warmly invitational and inspirational. A Guidebook to Prayer presents twenty-four ways to deepen your relationship with God and enter into the practice of prayer.

Morse describes prayer as ‘a love relationship involving the interdependent union of the Trinity’ (17).  Thus she doesn’t emphasize the duty of prayer but the way we attend to our relationship with Him. She says, “Rather than asking ourselves, ‘am I praying each day?’ we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I in a love relationship with God today? Am I living like Jesus today? Do I smell the sweet breath of the Spirit today?'”(17).

This focus on how prayer cultivates our friendship with God is a welcome alternative to approaches that treat prayer instrumentally (i.e. what does prayer do?) or in a utilitarian way (i.e. what do I get out of praying?). Instead Morse invites us to see prayer as our participation in the life of the Trinity.  A Trinitarian framework for thinking about prayer is the organizational framework for her book. The Twenty four ways of ‘praying’ are presented under the headings: ‘God the Father,’ ‘God the Son,’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit.’

In Part One, Morse  focuses on the Fatherhood of God. She begins with a  ‘community prayer’ which evokes  both the divine community (The Oneness of God) and the ways God’s people have publicly prayed as a community for millennia (the unity of the Church). She includes both Jewish prayer (i.e. Praying the Psalms, the shema ) and praying set prayers with a prayer book (i.e. The Divine Hours, Common Prayer, etc.).  Morse reflects on various attributes (His holiness, His loving-kindness,  His Worthiness) and activities of God (His creation, His resting, His activity) as invitations to different ways of prayer. She describes ‘creative prayer’ (making something as an act of prayer), work prayer (praying as part of your vocation, contemplative prayer, confession, blessing and worship.

Part Two reflects on Jesus’ example. The incarnation invites us into a whole new way of being. Praying in Jesus name means experiencing Him in his Humanity, in His lordship, in His servant nature–as reconciler, as love embodied, as teacher, as sufferer, as savior and as the head of the body. The prayers in this section invite us into a whole new way of being drawing on Christ’s example. Morse presents some classic prayer practices (i.e. the daily examen, lectio divina, the sacraments) with other prayers which invite us to put on the character of Christ. With Jesus we are invited to pray (and live) simply, as servants. At times this means we pray playfully aware that God is with us in our joys. But we enter into suffering and relinquish our need to be in control, learning that God is with us in our sorrows.

Part three describes the experiential dimension to our prayer life in the Spirit. The prayers that Morse collects in this section explore the Spirit’s ministry of intercession, discernment and guidance. The Spirit is what enables to experience God’s presence, His protection and deep joy. Thus the prayers in this section invite us to receive from God.

I find the Trinitarian framework helpful and inspiriting. I read this book with an eye towards practice and have attempted some of the prayer exercises that Morse suggests for individuals. However, each chapter includes suggestions for practice in groups, or with partners. This makes this an ideal resource for small groups,  prayer-partners, or really anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Morse really has a gift for presenting these practices in a way that includes seasoned pray-ers and spiritual neophytes. This is the sort of resource that is accessible to anyone wishing to enter the life of prayer. But this a book meant to practiced and not just read.

Morse has G. K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of her introduction which says, “The difference between talking about prayer and praying is the same as the difference between blowing a kiss and kissing.” More so for those of us who are perennial ‘readers of prayer books.’ We are even further removed from the conversation. I am a better reader than I am a pray-er. However Morse’s book has inspired me and I have made plans to do each of the partner exercises with my wife over the coming weeks. This book holds out a means to deepen our prayer-life and our participation in the life of the Triune God. I give this 5 stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

How Do ‘You’ Pray?: A Book Review

How does your personality affect your prayer life? Do certain temperament types find different types of prayer easier than others? What about your past history?  What are the therapeutic benefits of prayer?  Is prayer just auto-suggestion, conditioned response or childish illusion?  Are all prayers the same? What about Eastern meditation?

Psychiatrist and Bible teacher Pablo Martinez brings his professional insight to bear on the topic of prayer.  In Praying with the Grain: How Your Personality Affects the Way You Pray, he offers biblically sound direction to developing your prayer with keen psychological insight from an evangelical perspective. The late John Stott wrote the foreword for this book (I think the foreword is a carry-over from the book’s previous incarnation entitled Prayer Life, 2001). I certainly appreciated that this book delved  beyond your typical pop-psychology pap with good biblical grounding from an evangelical perspective. Really, I think this is a rare combination in the Christian book market!

This is a short book, composed of five chapters. Chapter 1-3 compose part 1 of this book which address the psychology of prayer. Chapter one focuses on how our personal temperament affects the way we pray. Martinez argues that different temperament types have natural strengths and weaknesses in their approach to prayer. Using Carl Jung’s temperament types he explores how the various types (thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition)  and the proclivity toward introversion or extroversion has real affect on our prayer life. For example, introverts are introspective and turn inward while extroverts are activists who focus on other people and things. Thinking types tend to be rational and methodical in their approach to prayer making them effective intercessors and good at confession  but they aren’t so good at expressing adoration and worship. Feeling types are more relational in their approach to prayer and are more likely to ‘feel’ God’s presence and show concern about concrete situations of social injustice; yet they can tend toward excessive subjectivism.   Intuitive types are the natural mystics and contemplatives and prize freedom in prayer (which means sometimes they aren’t particularly grounded).  The Sensation type addresses God through the senses and tend to relate to God in a childlike way but are sometimes too reliant on external circumstances and never pray for very long. Martinez’s goal is both to help us affirm and appreciate the different ways people experience God but also shore up and develop in areas where we are naturally weak (it is healthier to be nearer the center in each of the temperament types or in terms of extroversion/introversion).

Chapter 2 addresses emotional problems and prayer and difficulties people have when they come to prayer. These include difficulties in the course of prayer such as getting started, not feeling God’s presence, not wanting to be hypocritical, difficulty in concentrating (i.e. anxiety or nervousness, bad thoughts)  and the  inability to pray in public. He also addresses the different content of prayer (adoration and praise, confession, request and intercession) and asserts that a healthy pray life needs to include each element regardless of your natural proclivities.  In chapter 3 Martinez describes the ‘therapeutic benefits of prayer,’  both existentially and in terms of  a ‘psychotherapeutic process” of  a growing  intimate relationship, a cathartic unburdening, providing guidance and discernement, and personal growth.  In both of these chapters Martinez’s psychological insight is helpful for entering more fully into prayer.

In part 2 Martinez provides an apologetic for Christian prayer.  Chapter 4 addresses secularist/modernist criticisms of prayer (i.e.  prayer as self-suggestion,  prayer as conditioned response, or childish illusion. In chapter 5 he examines the differences between Christian prayer and meditation and Eastern style meditation and Platonic mysticism.  I think he does a good job of dismantling psychologically shallow caricatures of prayer and demonstrating that there is real substance to prayer beyond a placebo effect.  He also demonstrates how Christian meditation has a different purpose, method and content than either Eastern meditation or Platonism.  What I really liked about his final chapter is the way he eschews method and technique  (which is the Eastern approach) and proclaims that the Christian understanding of prayer is an intimate relationship.

While I found part 2 interesting and think that Martinez is able to articulate important points succinctly and with insight, I think the real value of this book is helping people develop as pray-ers.  The insight that our  temperament type and personal history provides us with a natural style of relating to God. For a short book, Martinez gives significant space to exploring the difficulties we have in prayer and the strengths and weaknesses we have as a result to our unique shape, temperament and history.  There is a lot here that is of real help to those of us who want to grow at prayer and foster our relationship with God.

Martinez’s evangelical perspective makes him suspicious of some of the excesses of the contemplative and mystical tradition.  He does affirm a lot in the Christian mystical tradition but is suspicious of the ways that Platonism has robbed much of it of its Christian content and thus urges that our approach to meditation should be focused on scripture.  Certainly I can see how people get mystical and strange and become unhinged, but I wonder if there is more merit to some of the approaches to prayer that he criticizes. But this is more of a wondering, his approach to Christian meditation as centered on the word and our experience of the word is in keeping with my own practice, experience and conviction.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.