Word Magazine March 1989 Page10-11
THE PRAYER LIFE OF CHILD AND PARENT
by Joan C Allen
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us. . .“ (Romans 8:26)
In truth, only the Holy Spirit can enable us to pray, and hence, only God can teach us. Therefore, my natural question as a mother is: “What happens to children?” Can children indeed be taught to pray by their parents? The literal answer is shockingly, “no,” because prayer must be a conscious act of the person who is doing the praying binding the mind and heart together with God’s presence. However, it is my contention that as parents we can provide an “atmosphere” which can allow children to pray. . . allow God’s grace to work. This “atmosphere” cannot merely evolve. Certain practices must both comprise and enrich such an “atmosphere” which is conducive for prayer. This paper will focus on these practices which should make up the Christian family life.
The experience of the family, of which the primary function is the support and growth of each member, gives each person a sense of who one is and how one relates. It is thereby the foundation of religious education and values. How a child acts in the world depends on the biases of the child’s family. It does not take much imagination for a child to understand God as Someone who retaliates when the environment of the family supports such a view. True, there are many other influences affecting the child of today, such as the television set, peer pressure, and schools. But it is ultimately the family which must provide the opportunity for the child to continue his/her association with God. Therefore, the family must maintain an atmosphere in which the child can experience God, and this involves a very delicate balance of personal, social and theological realities. 1
How do we formulate such an atmosphere as parents?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand how it is that we can experience God. According to Timothy Ware, “God’s energies, which are God Himself, permeates all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light.” When one participates in these divine energies, one is brought face to face with God.2 Thus, the “atmosphere” is needed merely to provide the possibility for God’s energy to enter our lives, to bring us precisely, “face to face.”
First and foremost, then, families must together participate in the sacramental life of the Church. We, as parents, can “theorize” all we want with our children — and with good theory! But if we do not match our theorizing with “practice,” there will be no connection between the words and the practice. Thus the words will be meaningless, while the actions will certainly speak; actually, the actions will “shout!” The most common example of this lack of connection, is sending the children to Liturgy on Sunday morning rather than taking them and partaking of the Body and Blood of our Savior together. All that will be imparted in this case is the impression that Sunday sleeping is valuable for adults and the Liturgy is valuable for kids! And of course someday when little Johnny becomes “of age”, he will not have to participate himself in this experience for children. He, too, can then be an adult and stay home to sleep.
Secondly, as Christian parents, we have to lead exemplary lives — lives which are “in touch” with Christ and the Church. We cannot rely only on our own insights as Proverbs 3:5-6, states, but must “acknowledge the Lord to direct our paths.” We can do this through leading prayerful lives ourselves. However, this “atmosphere-which-provides-the-education,” I suggest, can take place through various practices of which I can immediately suggest five:
1. The use of TIME AND SPACE. This practice comes through setting aside available time and space. It is significant to take time only for prayer. We can start with meal times, and bedtime. If we send Sally to bed and tell her to recite her prayers while we are doing something else, she may do it quickly for the sake of getting it over with, or she may not do it at all. (Nor will we have any idea of what she is saying!) But if she sees Daddy and/or Mommy seriously praying in earnest devotion, she cannot help but be encouraged or inspired to pay attention to her own prayers. The benefits from such a unified prayer in a particular time and space in the family life are numerous. Most importantly, though, it shows the love and respect between the father and mother. Also the individual parents can draw from God the grace they need to direct the minds and hearts of their children. In the words of Jean-Nicholas Grou, “There is nothing more likely to lead children to fear God in the person of their parents, than a high opinion of their piety.” 3 Equally noteworthy for this point is that the family is not exuding its self-sufficiency apart from God, but fulfilling instead the words of Christ, in St. Matthew 18:20, which states: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Christ is there, in that time and space, with the family.
Along with this point, parents must also take time for personal prayer. The best way is to discipline ourselves by setting a time each day in our busy schedules, and holding to it! Phones can be taken off the hook; doors can be closed and locked.
The other major consideration of this personal prayer is the space where prayer takes place. One has to decide for oneself which place is most conducive to prayer. It could be in the home, before the ikon, or outside with the elements, but mainly wherever one can be moved to sense being in God’s presence; that is, in His space.
2. Providing the CONTENT. This is the practice of paying attention to the content of the prayer. The most perfect prayer we can pray is that given to us by Christ Himself the Lord’s Prayer. There is nothing necessary for prayer which is not contained in it. Its simplicity makes it perfect for children as well as for adults in every walk of life. However, we must not only recite this prayer, but understand what it is that we are saying. We can, of course, do this by reading Orthodox books specifically explaining the Lord’s Prayer, or asking direction from our priests. Once we understand what it is that we are saying, then we can pray with our heart. In this sense, it is not even important to concentrate on the words per se (Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is different than Luke’s). Rather, the Lord’s Prayer is the guide as to what we pray for. From the Lord’s Prayer we can move on to “Lord have mercy.” (The Jesus Prayer is an expanded form of this.) We can certainly use a prayer book, but not as a crutch. Children should know that there is no such thing as memorizing “The Special Morning Prayer,” but the fact that they should pray in the morning, and give thanks to God for the new day. The prayer book can help us in “what to pray” just as reading the Psalms can. The point is that children will begin to know of what their prayers should consist, (for example, adoration of God, thanksgiving to God, supplication before God, etc.), and may learn to pray unselfishly, rather than by orally submitting a “list” to Him (such as one does with Santa Claus). This child needs also to know that conditions cannot be placed upon his/her prayers. “God do this for me, or get that for me, then I will do this in return.” We must all be willing to accept God’s will, whatever it is and when He is ready.
3. READING. Through this practice we come to nourish our prayers with good reading. The Bible, as the prime “reading” source, provides much direction for the content of prayer. The fathers of the Church provide many insights as well. Christian parents must be responsible to continue their own education, through various readings, lectures, retreats, Church programs, etc. It is not enough to further one’s secular education or “job skills.” One must grow in maturity of faith, or one becomes “stunted,” unable to bloom. Once we become more aware, we will as parents realize our inheritance and will be able to consciously educate our children by our own lives. Our children can have faith if we not only have faith, but live it.
4. LISTENING. This is the practice of learning to listen or becoming more adept at hearing. All of us are different and distractions may make us unable to concentrate. Ted Frederick went so far as to say in an article entitled, “Praying on the Run,” that we learn to jog in order to enhance our prayer life! His reasoning is that through jogging, we can discipline our lives, stimulate our intellect and our emotional faculties, and well-condition the bodies which we were given. This is instead of becoming prematurely tired and unable to lift our hearts in prayer, due to “lack of muscle tone and proper oxygenization” of our system.4 His idea is that running increases our desire and our ability to perceive more delicate stimuli which we may otherwise overlook in our stuffy homes. I am not suggesting that we all jog in order to be in shape to pray. But I am submitting the thesis, regarding our prayer life, that we too must try to “listen” to things we ordinarily take for granted, but which should not be. It is by such listening that we can become aware of silence. I can remember, for example, when I came home from a serious hospital stay. It was Fall, and my husband was out with the children. I was standing and looking out the window. I heard the wind rattling the panes, the sound of the heating unit clicking on, and suddenly I felt enriched by the silence . . . aware that I was truly alone with God. The point is that this silence can be a true plus to “centering” in our prayer life. It was for me an awareness of where I was, who I was, and who God is.
It was Teresa of Avila who cautioned, “We ought to address ourselves to prayer rather in order to listen than to speak. “If we have difficulty in hearing the obvious around us, how can we expect to listen to the “small still voice” of the Spirit of God within us?
5. THANKSGIVING. The final practice is simply by living a life of thanksgiving. If we truly are thankful for all things, for God’s infinite mercy, and for God, then we should not be constantly complaining or miserable beings. This attitude is easily acquired by our children just as assuredly as they pick up a cold from others. It is so easy to fall into the “woe is me” category when things are not the way we want them. And instead of greeting each day with thankfulness, or “catching” our children being good, we slip into despair when the car will not start or the children fail to act as “adult-like” as we would have them act. The old cliché is true: we can look at a rose and bemoan the fact that it has thorns, or be grateful that the thorn branch has roses on it. Better yet, we can be thankful that there is a rose, is a tree, is a world. Personally, I have always found that when I feel moments of darkness, a simple visit to the nearest hospital to lift myself from my surroundings into the lives of those persons who are really suffering, is quick to restore me. Or perhaps one can stay home and read the story of Job. The point is that these moments of darkness come precisely because we are centering on ourselves, and not on the Lord. (As it is written in Psalm 36:9, as a reminder of this fact: “For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.”) Such a self-centeredness, I feel, is synonymous to the misuse of material possessions. We must remember that all we possess can be taken from us. Everything that we take into our own hands in order to “possess it”, or to “store it”, keeps us from sharing it with others. Love, then, becomes lost. We can truly trap ourselves in our possessions through enslavement to objects, to people, to jobs. Therefore, we must consider ourselves rich in the knowledge that everything we possess is a gift of God and a sign of His love. This is the knowledge which will enable us constantly to give “thanks to the Lord.” As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:17): “Whatsoever ye do in word and deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”
Despite all that we can propose, there are no easy answers to the questions we have as parents. And there are no guaranteed results. But we can, at the very least, feel secure in the knowledge that we have indeed done our best to provide this “atmosphere” which is comprised of these practices. It is through such an atmosphere of the family, which is a Christian family, that I think we can provide a type of “hidden curriculum” in our educational role. We have accepted our responsibility and acted upon it. We have put our faith on the line. The rest must be accepted by our children and left to the grace of God.
Joan Allen is a graduate of Fordham University with a Master’s in Religious Education. She is the Khoureeye at St. Anthony Church in Bergenfield, NJ.
1. Samuel Natale, “A Family Systems Approach to Religious Education and
Development,” Religious Education. Volume 74. (May-June, 1979), pp. 248- 249.
2. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 217.
3. Jean-Nicholas Grou, How to Pray, trans. by Joseph Dalby, D.D. (London: James Clarke and Co. Ltd., 1964), p. 93.
4. Ted Frederick, “Praying On The Run,” Spiritual Life. (Fall, 1980), pp. 168-169.