Doubtless most Christians who are serious about their faith have spent a fair amount of time struggling with prayer, both when they are praying and when they are not praying but thinking that they should be praying. No one who I have ever met has ever said that they pray enough. I've also read enough books on prayer that I doubt that there is little new that can be said on the subject. Pray. Pray unceasingly, Scripture says. But honestly, it's a discipline that often escapes me, that frustrates me, that leaves me wondering sometimes whether I'm simply talking to myself.
Though it is not a new book, and certainly not new in what it says, the late Linette Martin's book, Practical Praying, is a refreshing read and good prompt for a renewed or new prayer life. Martin wrote the book because she could not find a book on prayer that really told her what she needed to know. What is so delightful about this book is the candor with which she approaches the subject, as well as the very practical advice she offers.
First off, she reminds us of why we pray. "God is not a puppet, neither are you his: that is what makes Christian prayer a strenuous and disturbing business." I can't recall ever having heard anyone put it that way. What she is getting at is the paradoxical fact "that the God who lives in unapproachable light is approachable," and, when we approach him in prayer we cannot manage him but take the good risk that he will come into our lives and do with us as he pleases. In other words, prayer is not safe. It keeps us from being too chummy with God Almighty; we love him as subjects adore their King. It is, as she says, a fearful love, one of the reasons we pray, the others being habit and need.
But this is practical theology, lived experience. For those who can't seem to pray or who've given up the practice, she suggests the most modest of beginnings, the "prayer of smiles and glances," just looking to God in love, nothing more. And then, and only then, speaking only a few simple words. We become children again, and while we don't stay children, sometimes we need to go back to basics before we can grow.
From there she moves on to discuss time and place, choreography (movement), informal and structured prayers, the outline of prayer (intercession, penitence, praise, and reading), special situations (like praying when sick or depressed), and praying with other people. The prose is simple and yet not simplistic. Sometimes Martin voices thoughts about prayer that we may have thought but thought wrong to verbalize! For example: "People who have never been very sick will say smilingly, 'Oh, when you are lying in bed, never mind, you can always pray.' To them I would say, 'Do you remember what it was like the last time you had flu? You lay there feeling weak and shivery and you ached all over and everything looked far away and it hurt even to move your eyes. How much praying did you do then?' The honest answer is, 'Well, not a lot.'" The candor strikes a chord: we come to think that the author is one who learned all this by experience, the hard way, a fact she admits.
In a chapter that may be controversial for some Protestants, she urges the use of all the senses in prayer, noting the value of icons, for example. "Because Christianity is an incarnational religion, we do not need to be afraid of the material world of taste and scent and sound and touch and movement and sight." So pictures, music, incense, and fasts can be helpful in developing a good prayer life. Similarly, her openness to tongues may be controversial, and yet her advice is practical: "Whether you have the gift of tongues or not, the basics of prayer are the same, and they are unexciting: a discipline of time and place, a balance of praise, humility, intercession, and tuning a life to God's will." It's work, and work is fulfilling but also difficult at times.
This is down-to-earth praying from one who is was firmly planted in the stuff of life. Earthy, and yet heaven bent. Get a used copy of this unfortunately out-of-print book. Rethink this whole thing of prayer. And pray. Unceasingly.