Lent Book Review

Say it to God, Luigi Gioia

‘Prayer is an impossible task, something we cannot achieve, something we are not capable of.’ Strange and dispiriting words, you might think, to write in the middle of a book that is supposed to be, according to its own subtitle, ‘in search of prayer’. Seen in the context of Luigi Gioia’s central assertion about prayer, however, these lines not only make perfect sense, they flip our initial disappointment on its head and make of it the solid ground of strength and encouragement. How? Well, without giving too much away, it’s all about who’s actually doing the praying and how we position ourselves within our encounter with God.

If you’re looking for a step-by-step manual on the practical mechanics of prayer, complete with handy acronyms (ACTS, anyone?), then you’d better look elsewhere. Instead, in a series of easily digestible bite-sized chapters, Gioia unpacks here just what it is we are talking about (and not talking about) when we use the word ‘prayer’.

Say It To God convincingly explains how this most esoteric of human spiritual activities – so often cloaked as it is, let’s face it, in a heavy layer of perceived difficulty and sinew-straining effort – is in fact something that flows from the very heart of who we are. The early chapter Saving Time, for example, neatly illuminates how a prayer-like posture transforms chronos (sequential, measured time) into kairos (a time of meaning or revelation), and how the latter has power over the former.

Central to Gioia’s method of unlocking the secret of prayer is his examination of the Lord’s Prayer as an indispensable way into what prayer is really all about; not so much in terms of Jesus’ actual words, but in the posture, the attitude, that lies behind the words. Here he demands of the reader some focussed application as he explores what it means to say ‘Father’ (got to get that bit right), where we sit in the life of the Son and how we find our place within the Trinity. It’s worth the effort though, as what at first threatens to be a rather dry – soulless even – canvas emerges as a very human and heart-warming image that can speak to everyone, regardless of their belief, history or self-image.

Throughout this book, the author peppers his text with pithy scriptural references – sometimes four or five a page – by way of illustrating and grounding the points he makes; no surprise given Gioia’s identity as a Benedictine monk and his impeccable academic credentials. But there are no long words or impenetrable sentences here; one or two difficult concepts, perhaps, but the thought is always clear. And if the prevalence of bible quotes sounds a little pious (it isn’t really), there are ‘secular’ references too; the section on singer George Michael’s song Jesus To A Child is particularly affecting.

We are reminded here, too, that prayer is to be seen in the broadest possible terms – not by denying the critical importance of set times of prayer (Gioia affirms them), but by explaining how that dedicated activity can seep into and transfigure all other aspects of our life like ‘something continuous, that we somehow put on and wear like clothing’. In this respect the book presents valuable observations on the invigorating, consoling nature of prayer, and on the key role of our joy, pain, desire, anguish, need, and gratitude. It also presents some especially valuable thoughts on the nature of trust, in which our man takes on the perplexing account of Jesus cursing the barren fig tree (when it wasn’t even the season for figs!).

At the end of it all, the reader is left with a glow of warmth, encouragement, levity and possibility, feeling that we can indeed ‘throw mountains into the sea’. In the final pages Gioia even treats us to a few practical tips after all – tips that only make the fullest sense in the context of all he has said beforehand. And, although Say It To God will reward a degree of dipping in and out, it’s only really full immersion in the whole that will help transform ‘an impossible task’ into a life-giving activity.

Andy Puddifoot