“Prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” — St. Therese of Lisieux
Prayer is essential to the Christian life. Jesus prayed constantly and taught his disciples to pray. Saints throughout the centuries, known for their great works and courage in the face of struggle and persecution, centered their lives in prayer. Countless people today experience the power of prayer in their own lives, and in it find a source of healing, strength and consolation.
I spent 12 years of my priesthood as spiritual director of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. My main role at the seminary was providing spiritual formation for the seminarians. I organized their yearly retreats, made sure that each seminarian had a spiritual director, with whom they met on a regular basis, organized the weekly spiritual formation presentations for the seminarians and helped to plan days of reflection, among other activities.
In addition to providing spiritual formation for the seminarians, I also had the opportunity to teach courses in spiritual theology to both seminarians and lay students at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. Over the course of time, I taught classes on the history of Christian spirituality, Christian mysticism, spirituality and culture, spiritual direction and prayer. While much time has passed since I have taught in the classroom, I still enjoy keeping up with literature in the area of spirituality. Recently, I explored the library to see what is new on the topic of prayer. I came across four books that caught my attention.
The first is a book by David Torkington called “How to Pray: A Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life.” (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2021) In the book’s introduction, the author mentions he wrote this book for those who believe that “with God’s love everything is possible,” and are prepared to pray in order to allow God’s love to transform them. The book’s chapters focus on various aspects and forms of prayer, written in a clear, concise manner. Torkington explores such topics as the prayerful reading of sacred texts, praying with traditional devotions, the importance of interior stillness and the place of asceticism in a life of prayer.
Another helpful book on developing a life of prayer is “The 5 Habits of Prayerful People: A No-Excuses Guide to Strengthening Your Relationship with God,” by Michael St. Pierre. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2019)
St. Pierre lists five habits to help individuals to begin praying and to continue to grow in the spiritual life:
- “Passion and Pursuit.” The author explains that “passion” is zeal or thirst for God that motivates people to pray. “Pursuit” refers to doing something about the desire to pray, and taking action to begin praying through a disciplined approach.
- “Presence.” What the author means by “presence” is showing up for prayer at a regular time, and consciously and purposefully opening one’s heart and mind to God.
- “Preparation and Planning.” Prayer routines are indispensable for living the spiritual life. With disciplined effort, individuals can improve their routines. The author insists that with conscious preparation and practice, people can plan their day to include sufficient time to pray, even amidst the busyness and the distractions of life.
- “Persistence and Perseverance.” Patience, trial and error, and persistence are necessary for any worthwhile pursuit. The same is true for prayer — it is critical to stay with it in order to develop a fruitful prayer life.
- “Pondering.” The author points out that Jesus took time to “ponder” — that is, to withdraw to spend time in prayer and reflection — and taught his disciples to do the same. St. Pierre lists a number of actions that help create a space for “pondering”: annual retreats, weekly Sabbath breaks from life’s routines and daily prayer.
“Ten Ways to Pray: A Catholic Guide for Drawing Closer to God,” by Carolyn Pirtle (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2021) presents a very practical approach to prayer. This book is a part of the “Engaging Catholicism” series. It is composed of 10 chapters, each highlighting a particular form of prayer; for example, Chapter 1, “Praying with the Church in the Liturgy”; Chapter 4, “Praying with Sacred Scripture”; and Chapter 6, “Praying through Beauty.” The author structures each chapter around four questions: What is this form of prayer? Why might a person pray this way? When and where can one practice this form of prayer? How does one pray this way in practice? In a very succinct way, the author defines each prayer form and explains how a person can best engage in it.
Joseph Hollcraft’s “Unleashing the Power of Intercessory Prayer” (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2020) is an inspirational work about praying for others. In the introduction to his book, Hollcraft invites the reader to ponder the power of intercessory prayer: “‘Will you pray for me?’ These five words, when strung together, form one of the most critical questions in the spiritual life. How we respond to this question can change the course of one’s life, and as such, the course of history.” In this book, the author lays out nine “keys” for praying for other people, including “praying in the Spirit,” “praying fervently” and “praying in thanksgiving and praise to God.” In our intercessory prayer, God invites us to enter more deeply into the dynamic of his love and mercy. The nine keys that the author describes in his book are to help unveil “God’s loving plan to build up his kingdom one prayer at a time.”
Prayer is above all a response to God, who communicates his love and mercy to us in countless ways. He invites us to pour out our hearts to him, and so grow in intimate union with him. Prayer is essential for each one of us striving to know and love God better.
Why read books on prayer? Sometimes we need a little guidance, encouragement and advice as we continue our spiritual journey through life. Good books on the spiritual life can offer us the inspiration we need to allow God to expand our souls and unite us to him.