Giving and Receiving the Gift of Prayer
Author Interview with Phyllis Zagano, On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild
by Lisa M. Hendey
Catholic author and academician Phyllis Zagano, PhD, has an impressive list of qualifications and publications. However, when asked about herself in relation to her book On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild (Liguori, December, 2001, paperback 79 pages), Zagano states, “Well, my major credential for writing this little book On Prayer is that I am a Catholic godmother. I have two and a half godchildren—one girl and one boy whom I sponsored at baptism, and one boy whom I sponsored at confirmation (he’s the half!).”
An educator for most of her life, Dr. Zagano has taught at Fordham and Boston Universities and is a Researcher in the Department of Religion at Hofstra University. This fall, she is serving a stint as visiting associate professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the Yale Divinity School, Yale University, where she is teaching Roman Catholic Ecclesiology.
On first glance, Zagano’s tome on prayer is inviting. Originally written as a letter to one of her adult godchildren, the manuscript evolved into a gift for anyone interested in further exploration of the topic of prayer. “It speaks simply about prayer—who we pray to and why, how we pray, what we pray for and about. It is not complex or technical, but, then again, neither is prayer,” shares Dr. Zagano.
As a godmother myself, and one always interested in an increase in my own prayer life, I have found On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild a wonderful resource. The author’s counsel and instruction are offered in a lovingly familiar tone, truly reminiscent of a godmother wanting to share one of life’s greatest treasures with her beloved godchild. However the value of the book extends beyond that trusted connection to reach out to anyone looking to enhance their prayer relationship with God. I had an opportunity to discuss On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild with Dr. Zagano and she shared the following thoughts on prayer and its place in today’s world.
Q: What prompted you to write this book as a gift for your godchild?
My godchild had just turned twenty-one, and we sat together at midnight at the kitchen table during the very large and very lovely birthday party, and we spoke about prayer. I said I would buy a book, and send it back, but when I went to look for one I did not like what I found, even in the best Catholic bookstore in Manhattan. So I sat down to write my own.
Q. How did it go from being a gift to a published book?
At first I thought I would just collect photographs, or drawings, and scripture passages. When I spoke with my students at the University about that idea, they impressed upon me the need for actual instructions. So, I began at the beginning. First I wrote about “praying”—what it means to pray. Then I wrote about God—to whom we pray. Each day, topic-by-topic, I would give the previous night’s five pages or so to my student assistant to look at. She would give me criticisms and comments, and so it went
Q: What are the major themes and messages you wanted to share with your godchild and with those who read your book?
I think sometimes people think that prayer is something beyond the reach of the ordinary individual. It is actually as simple as breathing—breathing in the presence of the God who loved us into being and sustains our every breath. So the first thing I wanted to say is that everyone can pray, and pray to a God who created, redeemed, and continues to sanctify us every day.
Q: On the topic of being a godmother, what do you feel was your role in your godchild's youth and how has that transitioned into her adulthood?
None of my godchildren lives near me, so I mostly kept up with cards and letters, presents and occasional visits. Still, they are all my godchildren for life, and I remember them, attend their special events, and pray for them regularly.
Q: What are some important messages you might express to someone looking to begin or develop their prayer life?
Prayer is easy, but it takes work. The most important thing to remember, at the beginning, is that it sometimes becomes hard, sometimes becomes boring, and very often we are tempted to just quit and do something else. This is especially true in our media-saturated age, when every sort of entertainment beckons. There is always something else to do, something else to think about. But, if you think of it, God is the most important relationship we can have, and praying is simply being with, speaking to, and listening to God. I cannot think of anything more important. So the most important message I can give is to encourage people to believe in the importance of their relationship with God.
Q: How can one make prayer a priority in a world filled with so many time demands?
As I said, every sort of entertainment beckons, and we can move from experience to experience very rapidly. Unfortunately, media saturation does not encourage the development of an interior life. In fact, only silence can do that. So if one is to develop a life of prayer, he or she must find silence at some point in the day. I know that sounds difficult for a busy mom, but there are times in the day when she is able to be alone and quiet, if only for a few moments. That is, the few moments when she waits outside her child’s school, she can turn off the radio—and the cell phone. She does not need a radio in the shower, unless perhaps some wordless classical music or jazz moves her heart to gratitude for her life. The priority is not exactly prayer; the priority is mindfulness of God’s presence, care, and love for us and all around us.
Q: Who is the audience for your book? What comments have you had from your readers?
This book has been around for a few years. It was first published by Paulist Press, and now Liguori has it out in both English and in Spanish. It has also been published in Indonesian and Italian, and been recorded for the blind. So, many people have read—or heard—the book in a number of ways. I think one of the most memorable comments I have received is that of a middle-aged woman religious, who said she was so happy to read that every so often we have to learn how to pray all over again. Since we do not really talk about or prayer lives that much, I think the audience for this book is just about anyone who wants to pray, or wants to talk and think about prayer with someone else.
Q: Are there any closing thoughts or comments you'd like to share with our readers?
I think your readers might take a close look at the cover of the book, even if they never get to see a real copy or read it. The painting reproduced is a late 19th century painting of The Annunciation by a black American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) that hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a modern-day depiction of the annunciation—when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Lord. The angel is depicted as a pillar of light; and Mary, the young girl seated alone in her little bedroom, looks with wonder at the news. We are all a little like that. The Lord comes to us in prayer and helps us understand who we are and what we are to do in this life. Yet the journey is always a mystery, one we can enter into more fully and more confidently when we live a life of prayer.
In addition to her work in academia, Dr. Zagano is the series editor of The Liturgical Press “Spirituality in History” Series, which includes anthologies of major writers in the Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, and Ignatian traditions. She is at work as well on an additional book on the role of women in the Church.
For more information on On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild visit
Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including http://www.catholicmom.com and http://www.christiancoloring.com, and an avid reader of Catholic literature. Visit her at http://www.lisahendey.com for more information.