The story goes that the young man was sky-diving for the first time. He was quite nervous about the entire thing, but he had heard good things about the company he was diving with and their track-record. As he sat in the airplane, a thought came to him. “What if I die?” He quickly ignored the thought and moved towards the door of the airplane.
The first few moments of the descent were incredible. He felt like he was on top of the world. Then, everything changed in an instant. He realized that his parachute was not working, and he did not know what to do. All he could do was pray, so he immediately turned to the first prayer that came to mind, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive.” All he could remember in the moment was the prayer before meals.
I am sure you picked up on the fact that the story is a joke; however, there is a kernel of truth within it. In my work as a Catholic deacon, I often engage with people who may have limited intellectual capacities due to illness and the decline of age. What is incredibly powerful is that for such people they are still able to pray the vocal prayers of their childhood. The Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the consolation of holding a rosary all have a profound impact on people in ways that move beyond reason alone.
That being said, developing the habit of prayer cannot be reduced to simply memorizing prayers (though this is an important first step). In keeping with our definition from the previous chapter, prayer is inviting God and the saints into our lives. With this in mind, the goal of our formal practices is to develop a habit whereby we turn instinctively towards the Lord throughout our day. Especially in moments of heightened stress and fear, we need to develop a way of living in which our first reaction is to turn to God.
Ultimately, this instinct is a work of the Holy Spirit, but we can cultivate this habit of inviting God into our lives by set periods of prayer and meditation. The formal practices lead us to the informal.
Teaching your children to reflect and consider the Sacred Scripture is vital. Lectio Divina is the practice whereby believers listen to the Word of God and reflect upon it in an on-going dialogue with God. Much has been written on this great practice, but for the sake of this book, I will offer a few concrete suggestions and resources.
First, keep it simple and keep it short. It can be as simple as spending a few moments to discuss the Sunday readings or some other key Biblical texts, but the key is not to make the practice laborious. Little exposures to the Sacred Scripture here and there are a great way to show your kids that you value the Bible and that it is okay to open it and read it. That also means that you too must open and meditate on the Scripture. It is also helpful if you get a practical commentary that helps you to understand the readings. There are many great publications that can guide you in this endeavor.
For some ideas of ways to help children with Lectio Divina, I recommend the work of Jared Dees. He has a great book of hand-outs and activities that can help you integrate Lectio Divina into your family (http://www.thereligionteacher.com/lectio-divina-children-teens/).
The Liturgy of the Hours
The Liturgy of the Hours is a daily cycle of scripture and petitions which forms the core of communal prayer of the Catholic Church. These liturgies are connected thematically with the Mass. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired that this cycle of prayer go beyond the exclusive practice of the religious and priests, and for this reason they translated them into the vernacular. In the past few decades, there has been an explosion of materials, both online and in print, which help people to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Each “hour” of the liturgy has a distinct feel to it. The Office of Readings contains longer readings, and may not be suited to families with small children. The Morning and Evening Office (Lauds and Vespers) are relatively short, taking about 15-20 minutes a piece. However, they still may be a little too much for families with young children. The shortest offices are the Daytime Office and Night Prayer (or Compline). I recommend starting a family practice of saying Night Prayer, and see how that goes.
Night Prayer can also be helpful in that it calls for an examination of conscience. This can be an opportunity for you to invite your children to think about their day and where they need to grow. With these practices, feel free to adapt and change them to your circumstances. For example, you can take the examen time to have a discussion with the family about how the day went. Maybe you could develop a practice of sharing out loud. Feel free to adapt the structures to fit the needs and temperaments of your family.
For example, I visited a family that prays Night Prayer together. Because the little children would not be able to recite the Psalm together, they had one of the older children read each section out loud. The younger children simply gather around and listen.
The Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet
Regular recitation of the rosary is an important part of Catholic spirituality. However, people do not realize how flexible you can be with it. Instead of trying to rush through the rosary in a spirit of monastic silence, you can develop practices more suited to your family. For example, you can stop at each mystery and discuss it. It is also popular in Mexico to sing songs at the end of each decade. Again, adapt and play with how you structure your recitation of the rosary to fit your family.
The same thing goes for the Divine Mercy Chaplet. My sister-in-law enjoys playing recorded versions of the Chaplet being sung.
Some Further Thoughts
One of the greatest danger that families face with formal practices is that we can have unrealistic expectations of children’s behaviors. At first, your children may not enjoy these sessions of formal prayer. They may become squirmy or distracted. They may complain or try to get out of it. In addition, you will also probably have a hard time being recollected and focused on prayer as you try to redirect your child time and time again.
That is when it is helpful to come back to my definition of prayer. Instead of thinking of your prayer time as an incredible mystical experience that takes you to another world, focus on the idea of simply making an invitation to God and the saints. These little invitations may not seem like a big deal, but with time they will have a powerful impact on how your family lives and who your children become.
Also, while all the practices in this chapter and throughout this book are good and beneficial, that does not mean that you should try to do all of them. Keep things simple. In this way, develop regular habits that can be sustained over time. At times of heightened religious sentiment such as Christmas and Easter, you can have a few additional practices that help make the season more meaningful. It is important in all of this to practice moderation and prudence.
Which of these habits resonated the most with you? Why?
What might be some obstacles to putting into practice formal habits of prayer? What are some strategies you can use to work around these obstacles?
Pick one practice to do in your family this week. How did it go?