Praying with Children
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about the purpose and method of living life given by God for God. In his First Principle or starting point, he writes, “God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this to save their souls.” The Psalmist agrees by saying, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6). In Matthew 21:16, Jesus implores as well, “...have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies, you have prepared praise?’” Clearly, then, kids are included here, but how does a parent, caretaker or friend help a child fulfill this great duty to our Lord? What does praise of God by a child look like at home? Furthermore, with all the distractions and behaviors a kid can come up with, especially during praise and prayer time, how can a caretaker or parent possibly overcome such ingenuity and keep our focus on the Triune God?
The beginning step is to remember who has prepared the praise. The caretaker of the child is not the preparer in this instance, but a participant. God Himself has prepared the praise. So the first step is prayerful attention to the duty to serve this little heart in bringing about God’s prepared praise; it is already there, and we just need to cooperate to let it flourish, which is really hard when trying to get a child to sit still and pray. Offer your own praise and prayer sacrificially on the altar of your heart. In short, beg for help. Since prayer is a two way communication, understand the Holy Spirit will initiate prayer with you and the children under your care. You offer yourself for this great conversation.
Second, remember the world is “enemy occupied territory,” as CS Lewis eloquently identified in his writings. The world wants you and your attention to give it worth and time. Distractions will abound, especially when you are changing or starting a new habit of prayer in your home. Inattention or inability to direct the focus abounds in kids and adults. It is not limited to prayer alone, but is most pronounced when trying to direct attention in prayer. In our over sensitized world of sound, sight, and electronics all of which steal our ability to direct our attention easily, we take on habits of the mind we barely recognize as a problem (multitasking, allowing our focus to follow its whim wherever it may lead instead of seeing a project through to conclusion), until we really want to commune with God. Distraction is the norm. Where to begin? Begin with the principle that less really is much more and take time to do something small with intention.
Simple centering prayer is a peaceful beginning to lead anybody, but especially children, into a personal habit of prayer.
Light a candle.
Read a verse, scripture, or narrative Biblical story.
Discuss and help the children to find one sacred word from the reading to focus on during the centering prayer. It can really be anything given to the children during the reading without exception (ex. Peace, joy, Jesus, Father, Holy, the list of possibilities is endless, but let the children lead the word picking... this is very important). Have them keep their word secret or just whisper in your ear. It is private and not for everybody in the room. In future, the kids can come back to the same word to keep continuity.
Have the children sit supported against a wall or in a chair and gently close their eyes. Just be in the moment and give simple directions.
Tell the child to repeat the sacred word silently inside his or her heart during the prayer time.
Set a timer. Usually start with 3 minutes for kids ages 4 and up. Two minutes works for those that are younger, and yes, two-year-olds can learn their own form of centering prayer.
When your timer goes off, prepare to share. Be prepared to hear beautiful feelings and emotions, but don’t be surprised if there is frustration or even an experience of distraction. Please, persist in taking every thought captive for Christ and do not be deterred each day in returning to this centering prayer practice. Tomorrow, “always, we begin, again” with “nothing harsh or burdensome,” but with patient persistence. Do not judge, just practice. Giggles will go off and bodily functions will erupt. Simply persist and patiently get back on track even if you have to get back on track a thousand times. I know it is very, very challenging, believe me. Expect setbacks, but stay committed because it is worth it. The experience will change over the next weeks; when you look back, it will seem those harder times were actually very few in number. Kids can build up in length of time for the prayer to their age in years over a few weeks (so a 10 year old can develop a 10 minute practice within a few weeks). They may even go longer if you are open to that possibility. A general rule is to increase by 1-2 minutes each week for older kids and 30 seconds to 1 minute for the younger kids. Individual results may vary, so change your timer as you see fit. After about a month of centering prayer, kids have gained enough experience directing their focus, that you can consider some contemplative prayer practices (read a narrative story, and then have them spend the time imagining their way through the scene; if they get distracted, have them go back to their centering word).
Simone Weil wrote, in her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” that the practice of sending one’s attention towards an object is itself training the mind in its walk towards God. She states, “...every time a human being succeeds in making an effort with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” Do not be tempted to think this is a one time only practice you can dip into to see what results you or your child get. The key is to continue a daily effort even if you do not see anything changing. You brush your teeth daily, but what is the result in the moment? You know over your lifetime, your teeth either are or are not in good condition, because it is your effort in the moment that matters the most. No, teeth brushing and prayer have something in common. Both require faith to stay the course and reap the benefits over time of sustained effort. It seems too simple, but it is absolutely true.
Ask the Holy Spirit, through the power of Christ’s passion covering you, to reveal the experience of the Father’s love through the presentation of your selves, your souls, and your bodies, both you and the children in your care. You are all created for this purpose, so simply show up each day because you are being sought to receive the Father’s love.
“But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” John 4:23