“Learning to Pray: A Guide for All” by Fr. James Martin, SJ. Harper One (New York, 2022). 416 pages, $17.99.
“Prayers and Blessings for Health Care Workers”, edited by Mandy Mizelle. Morehouse Publishing (New York, 2021). 175 pages, $21.95.
Prayer can be a fierce bombardment, a gentle kiss, a hopeless sigh, a cry of victory. Or “praying” may be an act of multiplying words that yields nothing. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are people who pray absentmindedly and often act as if the service of God consisted of manual labor. Obedience is holy. But does God only require automatic conformity?
The perils of prayer haunt and overwhelm us all. Into this fray two new books on prayer have fallen – “Learning to Pray: A Guide for All” by Jesuit Father James Martin and “Prayers and Blessings for Healthcare Workers”, edited by Mandy Mizelle.
A drama class exercise is a lesson in prayer
Father Martin writes that prayer is not a “bottom-up approach” but rather “a long loving look at reality”. He saw this truth come to life when he attended an acting class taught by a gifted voice teacher.
The class began with each participant standing alone in front of the others to recite a simple, awkward phrase: “I am here, in this room, with all of you, today.” For the next 30 minutes, they did five simple “awareness” exercises that had absolutely nothing to do with the vocal cords or speaking.
After completing the exercises, they again stood individually in front of the group to say the same boring phrase they had recited earlier. “I couldn’t believe it,” writes Father Martin. “My voice was completely different. This insipid phrase was now invested with meaning. … Every word and phrase meant something. … If you had told me this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you.
The teacher explained that these five exercises brought them into the present moment. “Once you are present with what you are saying, you express it differently and therefore it sounds different.” Likewise with prayer. (This passage is so revealing and life-changing that it should be printed as a church pamphlet and distributed to every diocese in the country. In the meantime, turn to page 133.)
A surprising strength of this book are the many anecdotes that Father Martin picks up in his text. He shares his difficult relationship with a fellow Jesuit who hated him. “He really hated me,” he says, “and we both lived in the same building.”
On a lighter side (perhaps), it evokes a Jesuit priest who discovers his mother reciting a rosary “against” his cousin Timmy, who had refused to help him with household chores. When the dismayed Jesuit tells her that she can’t do that, the mother replies, “You want to bet? Father Martin tells this story while explaining the so-called “curse” prayers and psalms where the authors pray for the horrific death of enemies (see Psalm 137).
Collection of prayers and poems offering comfort to healthcare workers
Regarding our second book, “Prayers and Blessings for Health Care Workers”, I am amazed. A strange osmosis occurred as I read this collection of prayers and poems written by those caring for COVID-19 workers and caretakers. I moved under their lights, side by side with them, enduring just a trickle of the trauma upon trauma they endure (and still suffer) in hospitals and in their homes.
I keep coming back to the poem “A Tuesday Afternoon in 2020” by Reverend Laura D. Johnson. She writes that she held the hand of a dying man in his hospital room. The poem is so real and seamless that I can’t stay away. Here are some lines: “Her eyes begin to close/ Her face softens./ I stay there/ and my heart sinks when I tell her/ it’s time for me to go./ I slowly slide my hand and say ,/ ‘I will keep you in my heart.'”
The publisher of this book is Rev. Mandy Mizelle, a United Church of Christ chaplain and retreat leader who lives in North Carolina. Last year, she became Chaplain of Care for the Deceased. (Deceased means dead person.) Most mornings, she goes to the morgue to place a death certificate with a body before a funeral home or crematorium takes it away.
“I am here to honor bodies made of dust and divinity,” she wrote. “Crouching on my heels at the foot of each stretcher, I offer a prayer or a blessing, according to what I know of this body, of the spirit that inhabited it, of the people and places it touched, of those he loved. Then I return to the land of the living.
Excerpt from “They Say This Time Is Priceless” by Leenah Safi, who looks at “a woman who no longer looks comfortable in her own skin”, her dying mother: “Death/Horrible smell – even of away / She clings to everything / Your senses know / to exist in this atmosphere / it’s like having a larger than life “guest” who won’t leave / but graciously insists that you go on.”
There are 54 contributors to this book, including mental health advocates, a former Oklahoma State Poet Laureate, a presiding Episcopal bishop, a Muslim doctoral student, a rabbi, and Christian ministers of all faiths, from Baptists to the United Church of Christ.
Excerpt from “Companioning One” by Reverend Arianne Braithwaite Lehn: “Refounding my understanding/that though I am called to faithfulness/with what I have,/where I am/the decisive power of my days/is beyond beyond my competence./ Give me a reminder this week, God,/ of your presence in the details –/ just enough to shake me from/ this stupor of autonomy.
Sacred medals come in all forms. The prayers and blessings in this book are sacred medallions engraved with the faces and hearts of those who die and those who save.
“Learning to Pray” and “Prayers and Blessings for Health Care Workers” have a “take and read” quality. They urge readers to step into their closets and pray alone. Pray they never run out.
Cubbage has written for Notre Dame magazine and several national Catholic newspapers and magazines.