Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History's Best Teachers
I’ve been asked to teach a series on prayer, which has prompted me to read a lot of background material. When I saw the cover of KNEELING WITH GIANTS, I thought of a book I’d recently pulled off my shelf: SIX WAYS TO PRAY FROM SIX GREAT SAINTS. That 30-year-old volume assumed a Catholic readership, included a lot of biographical information, and frankly wasn’t very helpful or practical. So I turned to Gary Neal Hansen’s book hoping for something fresh. And I wasn’t disappointed. Here is an engaging, informative, practical book that makes you believe you could actually try this mode of prayer.
"I turned to Gary Neal Hansen’s book hoping for something fresh. And I wasn’t disappointed. Here is an engaging, informative, practical book that makes you believe you could actually try this mode of prayer."
A seminary professor of church history, Hansen seems to be writing out his class notes for a semester course on classic methods of prayer --- methods practiced and promoted by various influential Christians, specifically St. Benedict, Martin Luther, “the Pilgrim,” John Calvin, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, the Puritans, the author of THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, Agnes Sanford and Andrew Murray. If you know just a few names of Christian history, you can see that these “giants” of the faith cover a wide theological swath.
Hansen assumes his reader is Protestant, probably evangelical, and possibly resistant to forms of prayer that divert from a rather basic form of praise and petition. Without talking down to his audience (well, mostly), he explains the “giant’s” mode of prayer, often laying out a systematic teaching gleaned from across the person’s writings, even if the person didn’t write a treatise on prayer. In several cases, most extensively for Agnes Sanford’s prayer for healing, he counters common criticism of the person’s teaching. But he also warns of places where someone veers from an orthodox path or where someone can be taken to an extreme. In the chapter on Sanford, he notes, “If we can benefit only from teachers whose theology is flawless, we can’t learn from anyone.” In regard to Andrew Murray, he cautions: “It is at least potentially dangerous to measure our Christian maturity by God’s answers to our prayers.”
Hansen’s best chapters are those on St. Benedict, explaining the use of prayer books and written daily prayers; on John Calvin (“Meditation on the Psalms”); and on the Pilgrim’s “Jesus Prayer.” His prose is enlivened with personal anecdotes, some citing his students’ reactions to this material. His suggestions for trying out the various forms of prayer are always specific and doable --- for example, asking readers to start with five minutes of prayer instead of half an hour.
Hansen repeatedly reminds the reader that no person will connect with or be called to every type of prayer. “God has prompted different people in different traditions, places and times, to approach the task of prayer in a wide range of ways.” There is so much to learn, and KNEELING WITH GIANTS is a great place to start.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on April 22, 2012