After only a few pages of Why Bother Praying?, before I had even reached the end of the introduction, I had already laughed, cried, remembered and celebrated, all in the knowledge 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 left Fr Leonard’s sister a quadriplegic; one brief incident changed her life and that of her family beyond all of their imagining. Her brother’s priesthood did not mean that he had all the answers or that he was able to accept immediately such 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 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 begins with the fundamentals: 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 and answers 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. All of this makes Why Bother Praying? profound, well-researched and – importantly – 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.
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 be 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.’
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 ‘cannot wake up in a bad mood today, and he is not unpredictable.’ 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!
There is an interesting chapter describing various ‘tried and tested’ methods of prayer, describing succinctly and clearly Franciscan, Benedictine and Ignatian prayer amongst others. But Leonard maintains his light touch throughout, saying clearly that what God expects is that we ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’. Whether or not someone uses any particular ‘method’, 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: 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 the ordinand himself fainted half-way through the ceremony! He also describes a school nativity play in which a young 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 that 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.
Leonard is the Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, and so at the end of this book he adds a list, with brief descriptions, of 40 ‘Films upon which to pray’. This further increases the value of this book as a resource for teachers at both secondary and tertiary level.
Why Bother Praying? is thoroughly enjoyable, moving, funny and commonsensical in its approach to prayer. Its language is simple and direct, so that it will appeal to all ages and stages in life. The book gives a real sense that, wherever we might be and in whatever mess we might find ourselves, God is with us.
The reviewer, Sr Janet Fearns FMDM, is Communications Coordinator for Missio.
Find this book on the Paulist Press web site
’Why Bother Praying?’ by Richard Leonard SJ on Thinking Faith
’Where the Hell is God?’ by Richard Leonard SJ on Thinking Faith
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