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On Childlike Simplicity and Honesty in Prayer

April 10, 2011

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. As we grew up we gradually learned that there are certain things you’re not supposed to say. While that may be true in certain human interactions, it is less true as we pray to God. We need to stay honest and plain as we talk with God. He already knows the stuff we think we’re not suppose to say.

Honest to 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….”  I smiled too and said, “So you know what your prayer needs to be about. Now talk to him just like you talked to me.”

Psalms says it all – 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 striven 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 infantiumfrom 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).

Remember, five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than an hour of rhetoric and fancy words we don’t really mean. Pray simply, and above all, honestly.

Photo credit Echiner1 via Creative Commons

This video is about the prayer of children and beautifully illustrates what I am trying to say.

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  1. Mary says:

    Dear God- bless all those children; mine are adults and often skip church can you get them back on track?? I will wait it is Worth it!

  2. Vijaya says:

    Yes, children do have a wonderful relationship with God. I think back fondly to my child-self and how unselfconscious I was — Jesus was everything to me and I was always falling off benches and chairs because He was sitting right next to me!

    I truly regret that we didn’t introduce our children to Jesus until they were 8 and 10 and we struggle to maintain daily family prayer time. We try different routines, but nothing has *stuck* past 3-4 mo. and every fall and spring, with sports, any pattern we establish has to be changed. We get too busy to pray together as a family except at mealtimes. I do wonder about their private prayers and whether they can talk to Him like a beloved Father, Big Brother or Best Friend like I did. I would appreciate any and all suggestions given that we’re still finding our way and often face resistance from our children.

    I still find myself being aware of His presence and talking to Him about the minutiae of life and I wonder if I’m not bothering Him … These lovely prayers of children remind me that He is interested in everything we do and listens … even to ghost stories! I loved that.

    I do love the psalms — is there a book that we can buy that has them put to music?

    • Robin says:

      No relationship can be forced, especially one with God. If r kids don’t have the kind of relationship you think they should have, that’s something you will simply he to accept. A relationship with God has to be personal and unforced, or it isn’t a relationship. And whether or not this kind of relationship happens has very little do do with you.

  3. Terry says:

    Very insightful post. In my mid 20’s, I still look back to my nightly bedtime prayers as a child for inspiration. Although my family is not very religious, pretty much every night my Dad or Mom would pray with me as they put me to bed when I was little. I now count that repeated act as one of the greatest spiritual gifts I had received–and it was SO basic!

    As I’ve grown up, I’ve met many people who simply have no concept or experience of prayer. They just were never exposed to it in their youth, and so it’s something alien to them.

    Now that I wrote this, I have to stop reading the news and blogs, shut off the computer and get a few minutes of quality prayer time in before sleep!

    • Vijaya says:

      “every night my Dad or Mom would pray with me as they put me to bed when I was little.”
      I will do this to account for different bedtimes for the children. Thank you.

  4. ErnestO Stolpe says:

    My prayers have been enhanced since I stopped defining God’s love by the way we love one another — I now know it is important to love one another as God has loved us.

  5. C C Batey says:

    For the entire Psalms set to musical scores, may I suggest THE BOOK OF PSALMS FOR SINGING,
    published by C&C PUBLICATIONS, Pittsburgh, PA. It is a protestant hymnal and very common among
    Baptists and Presbyterians. Usually available in christian bookstores in stock.

  6. Michael says:

    I think we can also take a lesson from Moses in the Book of Exodus. Look how many times he was talking to God in a simple way – particularly when he was complaining about the people.

  7. Flo Alvarez says:

    Very insightful and helpful to my prayer life. Thanks Msg. Pope.