Why Bother Praying?

Richard Leonard SJ
Paulist Press (1 Mar 2013)
ISBN-10: 080914803X
ISBN-13: 978-0809148035
296 pages
RRP: £7.99

A foreword by Fr James Martin SJ, was sufficient recommendation to continue reading Why Bother Praying? Several pages later and still within the Introduction, I had laughed, cried, remembered, celebrated and decided that Fr Richard Leonard SJ had travelled a road somewhat similar to my own. Not many books on prayer have such an immediate impact.

A road accident made Fr Leonard’s sister a paraplegic. One brief incident changed her life and that of her family beyond all their imagining. His priesthood did not mean that her brother had all the answers or that he was able to immediately accept a massive trauma inflicted on someone he loved. The struggle to come to terms with the impact and the lasting results of the accident led to questions, anger, confusion and misery. Yet, in the midst of the upheaval and the darkness, Leonard also realised that his belief in a loving God took on a new dimension, becoming ever deeper and more real. His were the lessons learned through tears, harsh reality and the need to rebuild shattered dreams. Why Bother Praying? is one of the results of that journey towards and with God.

Leonard’s learning to trust in God did not happen overnight. In the book he describes his experience as a Jesuit novice, sent out for ten days to experience life totally dependent on God’s Providence and the charity of others. “Those ten days were the only time in my life when I’ve experienced hunger... I learned more about prayer in those ten days than in the previous twenty-five years... I prayed for my daily bread. I prayed for somewhere to lay my head, and I was often overwhelmed with gratitude for the smallest kindnesses.”

Why Bother Praying? begins with the basics: what if there is no God? What if, at the end of the day, the atheists are right and Christians are misguided or downright wrong? What if my image of God is nothing like yours? Is prayer merely a case of presenting God with a list of petitions which might or might not be answered? If God needs to be placated with some great sacrifice before my prayer can be answered, what is the point of praying? Leonard takes these and many other questions, answering them simply, honestly and frequently with humour. When he quotes another writer, he does not sound as though he first swallowed a dictionary or a theology textbook. This makes Why Bother Praying? profound, well-researched, but, importantly, non-academic and highly readable.  It is not aimed at academics or would-be mystics. Instead, it is for those who, like Leonard himself, struggle to remain faithful to prayer and to appreciate God’s goodness in the midst of heart-breaking tragedy or in the mundane ordinariness of daily life.

The God who emerges in Why Bother Praying? is compassionate, understanding, loving, and does not mind that a hungry nurse coming off night duty forgot that it was Ash Wednesday and treated herself to a large plate of bacon and eggs. God is the one who says, “You are wanted, not needed”, who “cannot wake up in a bad mood today, and he is not unpredictable.” As Leonard points out, “at its most basic, prayer is making space for God to love us... inviting us to have the courage to return the compliment.” We go to God as we are – and if we are angry with God, there is no harm in saying so. If prayer is not honest, it is not prayer!

Why Bother Praying? includes an interesting chapter describing various ‘tried and tested’ methods of prayer, describing succinctly and clearly Franciscan, Benedictine and Ignatian prayer amongst others. Yet he does so with a light touch, showing clearly that what God expects is that we ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’. In any case, for Christians, prayer “is centred on a person, Jesus, and through him we are invited into a loving and saving relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that has consequences...” Whether or not someone uses a so-called method in their prayer, prayer is all about a relationship of love: love is its beginning, its reason for continuing and its end.

In addition to private prayer, Leonard discusses the importance of public, liturgical prayer. The message which comes across loud and clear is that sometimes the best and most meaningful liturgical prayer is, from the theorist’s viewpoint, also the messiest and the most embarrassing. He describes the near disaster of his own ordination, when its potentially perfect rubrics could have been overwhelmed by the sound of the Salvation Army’s ‘Carols by Candlelight’ in the nearby football stadium and he himself fainted half-way through the ceremony. He also describes a school Nativity play in which a little Muslim boy wanted to play Joseph rather than the innkeeper and ended up in a fight (on stage) with the Shepherds and the Magi! Prayer does not need to be serious and straight-laced in order to touch hearts and bring joy into people’s lives.

Many do not understand why Catholics have such a great love for Mary.  Leonard explains Marian feasts, dogma and the Rosary with the same simplicity which characterises the entire book. Why Bother Praying? offers a brief description of each decade of the Rosary, but does so in terms of daily life that will make sense to anybody and everybody. He stresses that our prayer is not merely ‘otherworldly’, but is also part and parcel of our mission – and does so with humour, telling the tale of when a book by a famous Jesuit psychologist led him to tell his mother and family that he loved them – and they wondered if he was obliquely trying to let them know he had a terminal illness!

Leonard is the Director of the Australian Bishops’ Media Committee and so, at the end of this book, he adds a list of 40 films which he describes as ‘Films upon which to pray’, giving their title and a short description of the theme. This immediately makes Why Bother Praying? an extra-valuable resource for teachers at both secondary and tertiary level.

Why Bother Praying? is well worth reading. It is thoroughly enjoyable, profound, moving, funny and commonsensical in its approach to prayer. The book gives a real sense that, wherever we might be and in whatever mess we might find ourselves, God is in it with us. Its language is simple and direct so that it appeals to all ages and stages in life.

Perhaps Leonard summarises the whole book in the conclusion of his introduction. “Why bother praying? Because while there are some very wise and venerable guidelines, there is only one absolute rule: Is what I am doing deepening my relationship of love with God, my neighbour and myself? That’s what makes prayer so dangerous.”