When I first heard about Hansen’s Kneeling With Giants, I was excited to get my hands on a copy. My own prayer life had become monotonous, and I was in need of something that would help invigorate it. But the main problem for me was I was never really taught how to pray. I wasn’t looking for a simply a devotion book, but for something that would lead me and show me how, and Hansen’s book does just that and more.
Hansen’s goal in the book is to teach other Christians how to pray by using some of Christianity’s giants as a model. Right off the bat, I can already note one major benefit of this book—namely, that Hansen is not quick to mark off other traditions of the Christian faith simply because they are from the Roman Catholic side or the Eastern Orthodox side (Hansen—and myself included—is a Protestant). He rightly explains that Christians can learn much from the different traditions of Christianity given that each offers its own uniquely rich approach to getting in contact with God. Before beginning, Hansen encourages readers to really give a few of the approaches developed in the book a fair shot. That means, don’t just try it once, twice, or three times, but go at it for a week or two. If one does not work, move on to a different approach. The important thing, writes Hansen, is that each person “find ways that fits his or her personality and needs” (18).
There are four parts to the book with its own directed purpose. In this review I will focus on simple one representative Giant from each section/part of the book, as opposed to going through each and every one. The overall theme in part 1 is about making use of written prayer—whether its Benedicts divine office, Martin Luther’s use of the Lord’s Prayer, or praying the Jesus prayer.
Hansen begins with St. Benedict of Nursia. Before reading this book, I have never heard of the divine “office,” nor of St. Benedict’s way of prayer, which consisted of prayer services where one would pray for multiple services that consisted of an hour. But Hansen isn’t suggesting we have to pray this much (although it wouldn’t hurt). Hansen offers his readers four reasons for why choosing St. Benedict’s method. First, it can “bring order to our busy lives” (23). If we set up prayer times, like the services of St. Benedict, we can have a special appointed time where we stop what we’re doing and head into the office of God and spend time speaking with Him. This is something I personally strive to do. I set up a time each evening, normally 15 minutes before I read the bible, to get into prayer. This keeps everything organized, while maintaining God as my priority by setting aside time for Him. Secondly, it teaches us how to pray. I personally find this to be true since the office gives me a framework which to follow once I develop my own prayer habit. Thirdly, Christians—when going through a life trial—can pray the office even when they cannot find the words and will to pray in their own way. Lastly, Hansen uses his own experience with the office to demonstrate that the office can bring peace, although there is no guarantee of any particular feelings (25).
Hansen proceeds to explain how Christians can get started with this method of prayer. Simply pick a time of the day, find a version of the divine office—which Hansen provides—and go right ahead with the prayer, keeping in mind to find the time and version of the office most appropriate for you. Hansen encourages those practices this form of prayer to not give up when attempting it for the first time. I found it difficult at first because I’m not used to reading someone else’s prayer and simply reciting it as my own. I felt it was too rehearsed at first. But as I pressed on, I began to enjoy the language that was used in the prayer, and it opened me up to so many ways of praying. This is one of the problems that Hansen addresses in the “problems and possibilities” section of the chapter. Some people may feel that it’s rehearsed or that it’s not reallt prayer. One response is that if one indeed feels uncomfortable, then don’t do it. There are plenty of methods out there and if this one just doesn’t work, move on. But give it a fair shot if you can! There was an excellent analogy that Hansen used to describe prayer when ending the chaper. He observes:
When it comes to prayer, the office is like practicing the scales when you are learning a musical instrument. You may pick up the guitar hoping to play Jimi Hendrix, or you may start the piano hoping to master Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. Whatever your goal, when you meet with your teacher, you probably find you have to play scales. The exercises seem like the farthest thing from beautiful music, but keeping at it day after day, you learn the intervals and patterns that music is made from. Do them well and you can do what you want to do most. The office is like that. Think of it as praying your scales. If you are going to pray well, you need to learn to confess, to praise, to give thanks, to lament, to make requests and many other things. (35).
The theme or goal of part two is on how to make the Bible a part of your prayer life. “Since [the Bible] is God’s words to us,” writes Hansen, “It makes sense to listen there” (74). What better way to begin part two with the Protestant reformer John Calvin. The chapter begins with a brief note on how Calvin loved praying with the Psalms of the Bible. Hansen explains how Calvin’s method of prayer always incorporated the Psalms into his prayer life by studying them and reflecting on them through writing commentaries. Hansen goes right ahead to outline the steps involved in approaching prayer as study via the psalms. First, pick a Psalm and just study it line by line. Hansen instructs readers to bring along something to write with to write down any thoughts or observations about the text. The next step is to begin making connections to our own lives. This is where the prayer really becomes lively and personal. Doing this can lead one to pray for certain things in our lives or in the lives of others depending on what Psalm we’re reading—perhaps it’s a Psalm of praise to God or it’s a Psalm describing persecution and suffering. Hansen provides readers with some outlines that contain questions to assist with the study and prayer of a Psalm. The outline can be very helpful in prodding people who might be stuck on what to do. Lastly, Hansen acknowledges that some may not enjoy writing studious commentaries. If that’s the case, why not translate your thoughts on the Psalm into a song or a poem? This is another beautiful and creative way to pray that will fit for some people better than writing commentaries. Whether we choose to pray in poetry, song, or commentary, “we must discern the message of the psalm and distill it into something new—our own prayer to God” (93).
Part three of Hansen’s book deals with our end of the telephone line when we’re calling God in prayer. In this section, Hansen explores prayer as a form of simply spending time in the presence of God. One way of doing this is to follow the example of St. Teresa of Avila. Hansen explains how Teresa believed we can have a “free and open conversation with God […] because of who the Bible says God is” (119). It’s amazing and breathtaking to think that we—finite, sinful, tiny humans—can simply bow down in prayer and strike up a conversation with the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe. Hansen explains a little about St. Teresa’s spectrum of prayer in order to accurately give a description of what “recollection” is. There is “vocal prayer,” which speaks for itself; “mental prayer,” which consists of verbal prayers with an engaged mind; and then there is perfection, which is union with God via contemplation (120-122). Hansen notes that St. Teresa’s “recollection” is connected to mental prayer and contemplation. Recollection is to contemplate or think of the different roles that God takes on and to imagine the images that are associated with it.
Hansen makes note of a distinction between thinking and looking at God that St. Teresa makes when describing ones engagement with recollection (123). The former has to do with our approaching God and analyzing Him with our minds using logic. The latter has to do with contemplation; it is “about presence and relationship” (123). When we look at God, this is when we bring to mind the various Biblical roles or portraits of God, and Hansen highlights quite a number of them. We can view God as king, father, spouse, and friend, with each of these invoking truths about scripture and, as Hansen observes, “each biblical picture puts us in a different relationship to God” (120). The chapter closes with one more biblical portrait of God as our guest and with a few approaches on how to follow St. Teresa’s example.
The final section of the book focuses on how we should ask God for things and help in prayer. Hansen explains that there is a reason why he saved this chapter for last, and that is because “if we start with prayer as asking for things, we risk nurturing a lopsided relationship with God” (173). The first Giant is Agnes Sanford, whose focus is on prayer for healing. Hansen outlines four steps that are included in the basic process of Sanford’s approach to prayer: 1) Connect to God. Here one must get into the proper connection with God where we leave our fears behind and allow God’s healing power to touch us. 2) Making a “specific request, and move to thankfulness” (180). 3) We are to be with the person we are praying for and focus solely on God. As an example of this, Hansen recounts praying for his 19-month-old son by being right next to him, with his hand on his son’s back, and focusing solely on God through prayer. 4) We are to be joyful throughout the entire process. Hansen continues on to describe Sanford’s use of “imagination and visualization” and how some might object to this practice as incorporating some sort of New Age spirituality. For example, the technique, in Hansen’s own words, is “visualize the person you are praying for in a healthy state” (184). Some have objected that this technique endorses the idea that somehow visualizing something will make it so. In this case, visualizing a person as healthy will make them healthy. However, Hansen is quick to point out that none of this is being endorses or taught by Sanford. Rather, visualizing helps increase and build the faith of the person in prayer.
Before closing I’d like to note one minor aspect that could improve this already great book. I would have loved to see more of St. Augustine’s prayers or maybe some of St. Anselm’s. Hansen does devote a few pages to Augustine and the Confessions, but I think St. Augustine should get a chapter devoted to him! If author makes a second edition, it would be a great addition if Augustine or Anselm were also added to the mix.
Hansen’s writing is clear, fun, thoughtful and very inviting, as well as very encouraging when telling readers to try out some of the approaches for the first time. His expertise in the fields of church history and theology are revealed through the various autobiographical descriptions and theological tie-ins with the different methods of prayer. Hansen also has a reader that accompanies the book. In it is included all of the primary source writings of the various authors. The book also contains two appendix’s that explains how to use the book in small groups, and offers a quick summary of the praying method from each chapter. Remember that I only highlighted one Giant from each part of the book for the sake of saving space and for simplicity. Hansen’s book offers a lot more for those who want a theologically enriching guide on how to pray and become spiritually mature through prayer, as well as a fun journey through the lives of some of the greatest Christian giants who have lived thus far.