For many people, prayer is a private matter. Most of us prefer to pray alone and often squirm uncomfortably when someone suggests saying grace in a public place. We don’t often consider it proper to vocalize a prayer aloud.
But as William J. Byron, SJ points out, “The entire Christian world knows that when Jesus taught his followers how to pray he did not tell them to say ‘My Father.’ Rather, he instructed them to say ‘Our Father.'” We are often so preoccupied with our own day to day needs that the needs of others take second place—or perhaps even a distant third or fourth. Making time to pray simply for ourselves is a challenge in our culture, and our forgetfulness to include God in the most basic decisions causes us to default to the self when we actually have time to pray.
Byron’s latest book, Praying With and For Others (Paulist Press), shakes us out of our self-centeredness and serves as a reminder that while we all have needs that we bring to prayer—we also cannot “go to God without any concern for the needs, joys, fears, hopes and happiness of others.” To pray in this manner breeds a “solipsistic self-centeredness that is unworthy of both the one who prays and the God to whom one lifts his or her heart and mind in prayer.” We need not become so detached from the world when we reconnect with God that the rest of the world is but an afterthought to our own needs. An easy remedy for our forgetfulness of others or of our preoccupation with dreadful situations in prayer is offered by the author: “Let all that distracts you from prayer become the “stuff” of your prayer.”
Byron’s book is not a mere awakening to our sinful tendency to consider our own needs number one, however. It is also a helpful guide in assisting us to be mindful and intentional about praying for others, for special needs and also about our conversation with regard to God amongst families and friends in the mundane trivialities of life. Byron has designed small sections that reflect on the subject of our possible prayers and then offers a brief prayer of his own beyond this—easily put to good use for reflection groups that want to regularly pray together but haven’t the faintest idea about where to start.
In section one, Praying for Others, Byron suggests that we keep in mind not only those near to us (family, friends, and associates) but also those we may have forgotten (teachers, prisoners, workers). There are some for whom it seems obvious we need to bring to prayer (the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying) and some for whom I might never think of praying (winners, the youthful, those already dead). There is even a delightful section, “Those I’ll never know, until…” that reminds us that among the dead are countless people who would be a lot of fun to get to know and perhaps eternity is needed for greeting all of those characters who have gone before us or will come after us.
Section 2 takes on praying for specific needs—which I think much of our personal prayer often already entails. However, Byron steers us away from focusing on situations as they pertain to our own needs and points us instead to a broader sense of the world. In a section on praying for a solution, Byron notes that we are almost always looking for a solution for some problem or other—and we indeed pray about that—but do we pray about a solution for the problem of terrorism or discrimination or racism? In praying for victory (listen up Patriot fans), we need to ask what others have lost en route to our victory and if the playing field was indeed honest and fair? “Where is the honor in this victory?” Tough questions like this abound with each section that make this primer a challenging read to one’s soul.
A final section is the strongest and most practical of this fine book. “Talking to others about God” provides several helpful tips on weaving God-talk into relationships with family and friends without it seeming haughty, judgmental or intrusive. It also focuses on keeping God at the center of specific situations such as illness, sorrow and finally death.
I simply loved this book. My wife and I often find it difficult to pray together but Fr. Byron’s book will help alleviate our struggle and we plan to use this book in our daily prayer life. I would recommend this for others who would like to follow suit or for those who simply want to be careful for how, what and whom they pray.