When it comes to our struggle in prayer there are some things that we need to unlearn. For too many private prayer is often a formal, even stuffy affair that drips of boredom and unnecessary formality and has lots of rules. Perhaps we learned some of our lessons too well. And yet many of the youngest children have not learned these lessons and they seem to pray with great ease. They are unassuming and will say almost anything to God. It is true that children may have a lot to learn about public and liturgical prayer, but when it comes to personal and private prayer they have much to teach us. Perhaps a parable is in order:
A young girl received her First Holy Communion and, when she returned to her pew, she was noticed by her parents to be in rather deep prayer. After Mass they asked her, “What were you praying about after your First Communion?” “Well,” she said, “I prayed for you, mommy and daddy, and my (dumb) brother too! And then I sang Jesus a song and told him my favorite ghost story.”
So informal, so conversational, so unassuming, so real. And yet it is the way little children pray. But over the years it seems we drift away from this honest simplicity and layer on lots of “shoulds and oughts.” Perhaps we over learn or over apply some of the lessons we learn about human interactions. I remember as a child that a neighbor woman took up a goofy hair style. And so I said to my mother in a voice that might be overheard, “Mom, why does that lady have Goofy hair?” “Shhhh….” she said, “Don’t say that, you might hurt her feelings.” She later admitted to me that the hair WAS goofy but explained that there are many things we shouldn’t say. We should keep certain things to our self.
This sort of lesson is an important one to learn and has its place. But like any lesson it can be over applied. The fact is that many today remain silent when they should speak out by way of fraternal correction. There are times when we need to be honest and clear. So too in our personal prayer with God.
Early in my priesthood a woman came to me and spoke quite frankly and vividly about her anger and disappointment with God who had made her suffer loss. “Have you talked to God about this?” I asked. “Oh no! Father,” she said with her hands in the air, “You’re not supposed to talk to God like this.” And she smiled as these words left her mouth because she knew they were silly. I smiled too and said, “He already knows doesn’t he….So you know what your prayer needs to be about. Now talk to him just like you talked to me.”
The Book of Psalms is the prayerbook that God entrusted to Israel. In it is enshrined every human emotion, thought and experience. There is joy, exultation, praise and serenity. But there is also anger, fear, disappointment and even hatred. It’s all in God’s official prayer book. And thus God teaches that the whole range of experience, thought and emotion is the stuff of prayer. It is precisely these things that God wants to engage us on.
Little children seem to know this instinctively. They pray about what is going on, what interests them and they do so plainly and without a lot of formality. Even the bad stuff is out there. I have a brief but clear memory of my prayer life as a little child. I must have been about 5 or 6 and there was a Sacred Heart statue on the dresser. I would see that statue and start talking to God in the freest way and God would speak to me, simply and in a way a child could understand. But it was very real. And then the memory shuts off. It is just a small window into my early childhood, one of the few, and it was filled with God. Since my late 20s I have strived to find my way back to that simple and profound experience of the presence of God in prayer. So simple, yet so real. Somewhere along the line it faded. Perhaps I had over learned the lesson that there are just things you’re not supposed to say and the conversation became strained and unreal and ultimately assumed the “irrelevance” that many today claim of their prayers.
I have made a lot of progress in journey back by unlearning some of the rules I applied. Hearing little children pray has been a great help. It is the littlest ones really who seem to live in that enchanted world of the presence of God. By 5th grade it is fading fast and by 7th grade the flesh has fully manifested and a kind of spiritual dullness seems to overtake most middle school kids. But wow, can little kids pray. The Book of Psalms says ex ore infantium…from the mouth of infants and little children you have perfected praise O Lord unto the exasperation of your enemies. (Psalm 8:2).
Do a little unlearning where required in the prayer department. Though we need to teach kids about the liturgical and public prayer which has its necessary rules, they have much to show us in terms of private prayer; a prayer that is personal, unassuming, about real things and spoken with childlike simplicity and trust. Amen I say to you, unless you receive the kingdom of God like a little child you shall not enter it. (Mark 10:15)
This video is about the prayer of children and beautifully illustrates what I am trying to say.
9 Replies to “What Little Children Can Teach Us About Prayer.”
Our priest at mass told us in his homily that when he goes to hear the confessions of the 2nd and 3rd graders at the parish elementary school, he asks them at the end “do you think God loves you any less for all of that?” And they always say no. When he hears the confessions of the high schoolers preparing for confirmation, and he asks them that, most aren’t sure, and a few even say yes. (Had I been asked that question at that age, I wouldn’t have been sure either.)
God, what does the world do to us in those 10 years to make us change our answers so?
Thank you for this wonderful post. I’ve been struggling with my own personal prayer for the last several months (maybe years?) and this post really sheds some light for me. I’d never thought of telling God my favorite ghost story, maybe now I will! I do get caught up the “formula” of the way I’ve been praying lately. I’m afraid I’m almost bordering on superstition. Guess that’s something I need to talk to God about too. Thanks again. This is a wonderful blog. Really enjoyed the article on the 100 questions too. Any other tips you have on personal prayer would be greatly appreciated!
Thanks I am glad this helps
I struggled with prayer for years, and sometimes I still do. In answering the question of what changes our prayer from little kids to teenagers to adults….well, it’s life. When I was a kid, my world was a nice, safe world. Things I saw on the news thankfully did not happen to me until I was a teenager. I was exposed to the trials of the world, but had never experienced it until I was about 15 or 16. Then, let me say it was a rude awakening. My personal life and my hospital life completely shattered the world I had known as a kid. I became unsure of things, wondering how God could let all this bad stuff happen. When things in my personal life were really bad (and because of them) I drifted away from the Church and God for quite some time.
Eventually I realized that my life was safer, happier, and more bearable with God in it. While things are still not great now, and I struggle on a daily basis with my ER vocation being an all-the-time thing, I am better able to handle things with God. Things don’t seem so bad or unbearable with God there looking out for me. And what I mean with my ER vocation being an all-the-time thing, I mean that I can’t leave being a medical person at the hospital. Actually, in accordance with the Good Samaritan law (as a firefighter friend balefully told me), we have to stop for car accidents and things we see on the street, instead of doing a “drive-by 911 call,” which a lot of us are guilty of if we have to be somewhere. I also constantly have family asking me for medical advice, because I am the only ER person in my family. Some days I just want to be me, and not this medical person all the time. But, I’ve since realized that since this is my vocation, might as well as God for help 🙂
Thanks for another great testimony
When I returned to confession, the priest encouraged me to talk to God just like I was talking to him. I thought about it and realized God already knows what is in my heart. It’s okay to be upset with God, don’t be disrespectful about it, but it’s okay to be blunt. The trick for me was accepting that the Lord knows better and just because my prayers were not answered as I would have liked, does not mean he wasn’t listening. I had to realize that if I truely wanted the Lord to help me, I have to trust in him enough to accept the outcome and not run away or blame him just because things didn’t go my way. I also had to learn patience. Once it was a few years before I got my answer, but I did and I instantly knew it was the Lord. I also softened up my approach. Knowing and accepting God’s love and mercy I stopped approaching him in anger. I was hurting and I knew he would be there so I approached with more sadness and desire for understanding. I certainly pay attention to the formal prayers too. I enjoy praying the rosary through out the day, but at the end of each one I simply talk to God. I have received some of the greatest and most profound graces and revelations that words can not begin to describe. And it is a real comfort to know that when other people “don’t get it” the Lord always does. Sometimes I simply say thank you. It’s short, not very formal, but it’s from the heart and I think we tend to get caught up in our problems that we forget to just say thank you. God bless you Father and thank you for another wonderful post and for allowing me to share my experiences as I grow and continue to grow closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks for this great testimony.
A few years ago there was a dear young family at my old parish. The parents worked diligently to inculcate the Catholic faith in their six children. Invariably, at specific points in the Mass, the parents would be whispering into their children’s ears while pointing at the altar and/or the priest. One Sunday at a crowded Mass, during complete utter silence at the raising and adoration of the Host at Consecration, their four-year-old daughter spontaneously intoned very loudly, very expressively, and very solemnly, “MY Lord … and MY God!”. Needless to say there was an enormous outbreak of smiles in the pews – and a priest fighting furiously to maintain composure and solemnity.
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