What Little Children Can Teach Us About Prayer

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 mommy and daddy, and my (dumb) brother too! And then I sang Jesus a song, and told him a ghost story.”

So informal, so conversational, so unassuming, so real. And yet, it is the way many 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, “I can’t talk to God like that.” 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 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)

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

12 Replies to “What Little Children Can Teach Us About Prayer”

  1. So on the one hand, we have the formalized standard written Catholic prayers. On the other hand, we have the experience of having heard some Evangelical go on and on and on and on and on extemporaneously. Both of them being rather intimidating and leaving us to say little more than “Uh . . . um . . .” and then our mind goes blank. Then we get a little antsy, knowing that we should say something, anything more than “um,” before our mind simply wanders and starts thinking about food or what the person nearby is wearing or, worse, having some wrongful thought try to intrude into your brain.

    Perhaps the problem is those little things called language and words. Words are so limiting and constricted, especially when trying to express the deeper things in life, like love. How can you squeeze the infinitely immense reality of love into such a tiny four-letter word?

    Maybe the answer is not to struggle with trying to find the words of the mind and mouth, words that do not exist to fully say what one needs or wants to say, but simply to speak the language of the heart, the wordless communication which simply opens oneself to communion with the other, gazing into the other’s eyes, sighing and stoking the other’s cheek, radiating love. Contemplative prayer without words. Maybe, if we cannot find our inner child to pray with personal simplicity, what with Advent coming up, given the gross dichotomy between human language and divine language, we ought to communicate with God the same way we might communicate with a little baby, as Mary and Joseph did with little Baby Jesus. Whatever we might say in spoken language to babies is gibberish to them, words do not suffice; rather, we communicate with a baby through love, holding him, rocking him, humming to him, smiling at him.

  2. I am not sure how many other people feel this way, but when I read something like this post my immediate reaction is to note that when I pray it is difficult because of the real and overwhelming feeling I am talking to myself. I say this without any self pity, it is merely a statement of fact, nor do I think there is no God, I think all things considered there is a God, but the faith that God is there is really almost a positive act of will. I am reminded of Cardinal Avery Dulles line that Faith means that at any minute we could stop believing without absurdity. That is we know things by faith but not in the same way we “know” 2 + 2 = 4. When I was a child beleive in God was more like that, My parents said there was a God, and a Santa Claus, I knwe then there was both. I now know Santa Claus was magical thinking. I still believe in God for more substantive reasons, but not like when I was a child. I rather envy those who still can have that level of certainty, but have no idea how to attain it, and in fact wonder if it was attainable if it would still be faith. I know there was a Napoleon. I deduce pretty reliably I think that God exists ( first cause an all that) I have faith that he is the Christian God, ie the the kind of being one can pray to. I am not sure that approach to God lends itself to any positive emotional feedback, It is all work. People who think this way can neither see, feel, touch, or contact God in any fashion. They pray because more or less its a duty. I also know that at the end of the day God is going to do what he has ordained and in fact knows what we need better than what we think we need. So at the end of the day what we actually ask for may not jive with what the chooses to provide ( or even what is really beneficial ) so their is an emotional sense of what is the point. My 13 year old son recently asked my about this rather directly.. What is the point? ( I know the response to this, and its the one I gave is that we pray because God has chosen to grant certain things as a response to prayer, and so forth… and I accept this, but I gave this response without a lot of personal enthusiasm. In some sense at the end of the day It comes down to I pray because to not do it is sinful. There is no emotional solace in it. I would like to be able to sell my kids on the emotional solace/ peace Idea but frankly that experience is so alien to me I have no idea what to make of it. May as well describe the color red to a blind man.

    This has been the case since I was a teenager. When people say that “God speaks to them” I have no idea what they mean, since they clearly do not mean that they hear God in the same sense that we mean I heard the teacher, or my wife etc etc.. It seems what they mean is that they have the sense or feelings that well up within them that give them a sense of what God wants.. I have no idea how they distinguish this from something emerging from their own psyche versus what comes from God. I recently reread a book I first read in college, the late Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book :”He leadth me”, which tells of his struggles imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag system during the 40s and 50s, and while one must give some credence to anything that helps someone survive that kind of mind boggling ordeal, he speaks about the same sort of simple, faith filled prayer and hearing God in the same sort of “being filled with peace” sort of way, and have no idea how this is differentiated from one’s own psyche. In the beginning of the book Fr. Ciszek discusses his struggle with whether to enter Russia or stay with his own Polish parish which was under siege but perhaps needed him, and how his decision to enter Russia was associated with a peace that gave him confidence that it was from God… to which my response in college and remains now, How on Earth could one “know” such a thing based on personal feeling? . A Lot of times the thing we must do is really unpleasant and fills us with dread, but the alternative is to fail in some duty, so we push on. I would think it unreliable in the extreme to trust ones personal feelings about this kind of thing. This is not a criticism of Fr. Ciszek who I regard as a very holy, brave man, tougher than most of us. Rather it is more a question of what can he be talking about? In many ways I envy the people who can derive some solace in prayer. This kind of thing simply eludes me entirely. I suspect some people are just constituted that way. This is nothing like what I read some great saints have experienced as the Dark night of the soul… it is not nearly as dramatic and many of these Saints also experienced great feelings of love for God, or at other times a longing for closeness for God etc.. I like most people do not experience any of these things. I do what I have learned and come to believe is a duty as best I can with sometimes more and sometimes less success. I suspect I am not alone. I think at some point to address that kind of experience might be useful to some people.

    1. I have the same thoughts from time to time. God has never “spoken” to me, but I have to believe that prayer is required and useful for our salvation. Another phrase that leaves me without any connection is, “seeing God or Jesus in others..”. I have never seen God in anyone, but I have seen or read about others who certainly exemplify Christian love. Take Mother Theresa for example. I think that phrases such as “God speaks to me”, or I see Christ in everyone”, etc., are really empty phrases for the most part but it must make those who speak them fell better for one reason or another. I choose to stay away from that type of thinking.

  3. So very true! When my sons and I pass the adoration chapel in the car on our way home from school we say, ‘Hi Jesus! We love you!’, but my son started adding on. He’ll tell Jesus something about his day like, I’m going to gymnastics now, but I wish I wasn’t because I’m scared about going upside down. It caught me off guard, but it’s cute. One day out loud on the way to mass he prayed for the people pumping gas in their cars. Hey, why not right? 🙂

  4. In this complex and confused culture, we need simplicity. LORD JESUS CHRIST, Son of the Living GOD, have mercy on me a sinner.

  5. When I pray the Hail Mary, outside of the rosary, I first like to picture the Virgin Mary, standing there, heavy with child. Then, when the Name of Jesus appears in the prayer, I like to picture her holding the baby Jesus. Then, when I pray the words, “pray for us now . . .”, I like to picture her whispering into Jesus’ ear. Then, when I pray the words “… and at the hour of our death,” I like to imagine her setting the baby Jesus down on my dead, lifeless body and Him sort of poking me in the face with His little, baby fingers. I don’t think that is too irreverent and it makes it easier to think about my own death.

  6. Thank you for this:) For me, it was precisely what I needed to have shared with me today. God bless you Monsignor! BTW, precious, precious video!!!!!!!

  7. What a great post! I love structured prayer, the divine office is so magnificent that at times it can bring much comfort and much teaching to me, especially when I am at loss for words at home or away from the blessed sacrament.

    But when I am in the presence of the blessed sacrament in silent adoration – all, and i mean ALL words just fail. Everything, even the divine office, just seem so feeble, so pointless, so meaningless – it is as though even time, is subsumed into that great act of humility of one who is transcendent and ineffable; yet willing to descend to the level of mere creation, and what more lowly creation can there be than a piece of unleaven bread stuck between two pieces of glass (sometimes smudgy) with ‘rays’ of (many times) not at all shiny prongs of metal poking out and with unrelentingly bright SPOTLIGHTS trained right onto Him, just so that He could be with us in the most personal and direct way.

    Sometimes I ask – are you feeling warm Jesus?

    Sorry, I know it is crazy, but yeah. it happens.

    But then, that would be exactly the time when the priest comes out and puts everything back into the little stuffy box with incense a’wafting and I go home reflecting – oh what a God we have! on what a wonderful wonderful God we have!

  8. The key to talking to God is believing He is the parent of us all, who knows everything and provides all of us with everything we need. It is believing we are helpless without Him and only secure and loved in His presence. The faith of a child’s belief in God are stronger than the knowledge any adult can impart. God is not a concept to children. His presence is as real as their’s. Everything else is imaginary.

  9. I once had the innocence of a child’s prayer but life gets complicated as we get older—and even remembering to pray each day —sometimes loses its prioroty in my life. Each day I have to reaffirm my devotion to Our Lord.
    The times when I pray spontaneously makes me feel closer to God—a little more like His Child. The video is so honest in showing the purity and unpretentiousness of young children.

  10. When I was 4 or 5 yrs old, I had my playhouse in the crawl space under the house. There was room for a small table and a couple of chairs. I loved tea sets so I had a lot of tea parties. Jesus came to my tea parties and I still remember some of the words he said to me. Sixty five years later I know that this was not my imagination; he was really there!

    A few years ago, I worked in an emergency child care home for abused or neglected children. I learned quickly that children under the age of 5 knew Jesus personally. He was very real to them, no matter what kind of home they had. After about the age of 7, they were not so sure.

    I have struggled with prayer over the years. When I was protestant even though I had the Book of Common Prayer which I loved, I thought you were supposed to come up with your own words. I could do that with my supplications, but had a very difficult time finding the words to praise God. When I became Catholic 2-1/2 years ago, there were so many ways to pray that I sometimes just got overwhelmed. I love the Rosary and the Divine Mercy and the Liturgy of Hours. I used to think that repetitive prayers like the Rosary or the Divine Mercy were just saying words, but I find great comfort in saying those words, and I find my “own” words end up being just as repetitive. I say the same words and pray for the same people and the same intentions (with some variation) every day. Becoming a Catholic in my old age has been very difficult in a lot of ways, but my prayer life has been greatly enriched by the many resources for prayer I have found in the Church.

    Still there are times when I wish I could go into that crawl space and to again have Jesus come to my tea party in the same comfortable communion we had then. I know that he is willing, it is my sin and my human reasoning that prevents that comfortable communion. Still, as I get older, I find I am becoming more like my five year self. I am not afraid of seeing Jesus because he has healed me and restored me to my five year old innocence. He will have to do that over and over again, until finally one day soon we will meet in the greatest tea party ever!

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