COLLEEN R. VERMEULEN
To be completely honest, I often don’t enjoy praying with my children. There. I said it.
Now, this might sound ridiculous. I mean, I’ve been a children’s catechist and I lead adult faith formation. I write about prayer. I’ve studied theology — of all the parents in the world, I should love spending time in prayer with my children, right? But, I don’t. Family prayer seems an on-going struggle.
At the abstract level, in my mind as a parent, family prayer is an unmitigated good. However, the reality of family prayer can be quite different.
On any given day, praying together as a family with young children can be the cause of a new dispute between siblings, a reason to grow frustrated with a kindergartener’s incessant tapping on the floor, the physical discomfort of having two kids attempt to sit on your lap at once, or the trigger to a toddler’s meltdown that means you as the parent end up holding a screaming child in another room, for the sake of the others participating in prayer.
And even on a “good” day of family prayer, I can feel resentful. The hours in the day are finite, and like most adults, I long for more of my own prayer time. Why share the time I do have for prayer with family members who are so distracting? With people who, when it comes down to it, make me feel like I “get” less out of making the effort to pray?
Over time, I realized that harboring these feelings of resentment and frustration as a parent was leading to something more insidious — it was making me feel disappointed in myself, questioning my inadequacy in raising my children as disciples of Jesus. Worst of all, I felt a looming sense of guilt for any day my husband and I decided to skip family prayer, simply because we didn’t want to deal with the potential difficulties.
The good news is that I was wrong.
I wasn’t failing my family when it came to prayer. But I did need to open myself up to more of God’s grace — in order to see things in a new way.
Here are the ways I experienced a conversion in my own attitude, that’s made me much more able to accept, and even enjoy, praying as a family:
Build others up in humility
In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul guides these mid-1st century followers of Jesus to navigate questions of discernment, especially questions that deal with relating to other believers. Paul tells them that “knowledge inflates … but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). And, that we aren’t to seek our “own advantage,” but instead, do what’s best for our “neighbor,” especially those who are less mature or weaker in faith (1 Corinthians 10:24). This is the radical reorientation I needed when it came to family prayer.
As parents, we are more mature in our faith in Jesus than our children. We have knowledge of different forms of prayer and practical experience in what makes for “good” prayer time, (hint: arguing over who blows out which candle is considered “good” prayer.) Yet this knowledge can inflate my own expectations as a parent and lead me to be biased toward my own ideas of “good” prayer. Instead, Paul counsels these more mature believers to remember that “love builds up.”
My focus as a parent helping to cultivate family prayer time isn’t about my own knowledge of prayer or the experience that’s best for me, but about building up, through love. Later in his letter, Paul will magnificently unpack this love that “builds up,” writing: “Love is patient, love is kind … it is not inflated … it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Over the years, I’ve grown to realize that the more I bring patience, kindness, interests-other-than-my-own, and the limitless forgiveness of God the Father to my own role as “leader” in family prayer, the less I feel disappointed or frustrated by the disruptions and distractions inherent to our times of family prayer.
These days, I’m more actively leading as Paul recommends: no longer “seeking my own benefit but that of the many” (1 Corinthians 10:33). I can approach family prayer with humility, to yield my “superior” wisdom and intentions to the equal dignity, in God’s eyes, of my children’s desires, needs, and preferences in prayer.
Trust in the unexpected fruit
The Church teaches that children, “contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves” (CCC, 2728). When it’s a day that I can just tell I’m going to end up frustrated with family prayer, I intentionally carry this teaching with me in my mind — or even write it down on an index card — as we sit down to pray. When a child may want to sing a particular hymn over and over or have me read the same Bible passage again and again — I silently pray, how is this contributing to my good? Are there words here the Spirit wants me to be aware of? Or, when I end up sitting away from the group, with a child who is having a bit of a meltdown or had to be asked to leave (for example, repeatedly kicking a sibling), I can ask myself, how is this contributing to my good? In my own patient restraint in simply sitting with a screaming child, am I becoming more aware of how God loves me in this very same way? That God accompanies me with love, until I’m ready to turn to Him?
While I don’t wish for these things to happen, the Church’s teaching that our kids, in all of their unique peculiarities and behaviors — contribute to the good of my husband and I — is a deep reassurance. It allows me to trust that God’s got this under control, and that even when I find myself distracted or annoyed. The Lord is gently molding me, empowering me to grow in unexpected ways.
Recognize That the Struggle is Real
As parents, we need to constantly remind ourselves that it’s okay to struggle when it comes to not only family prayer, but our own personal prayer time. The Catechism includes a section called, “The Battle of Prayer”– proof that the struggle is as real for us as it was for canonized saints or anyone else in the Body of Christ. If and when it feels like a battle, it doesn’t mean we’re any less equipped or any less a disciple of Jesus Christ. It means that as parents, we’re human.
The Catechism offers insights into how we can engage well in this struggle to pray. First, to remember that choosing to pray — on any given day or for the first time in a while — isn’t about reaching some idealistic state of serenity and enlightenment before we start. Prayer is an act of the will, a response to God that does take some personal effort on our part (CCC, 2650, 2725). We can choose to pray and choose to lead our families in prayer in whatever mental, spiritual, or emotional state we find ourselves in. We don’t have to “get it all together” first. We can pray on days when everything flows with ease in our household, and on days when getting children to even sit down at a table to eat dinner seems like a burden.
One of the oldest Hebrew translations of the word for “Satan” is the accuser. And that’s what we may experience as parents — the Evil One accuses us. The Accuser tells us we’re too far away from God, or that we’ll fail at prayer. Jesus, the all-powerful Lord of the Universe, however, has a different plan. Jesus says, “I am with you always,” you don’t have to carry this burden alone (Matthew 11:29, 28:20). With Jesus, know that you can stick with it. The more we as parents persevere and give that effort, in the smallest ways, to pray with our children, the easier it will get. As praying as a family became more ordinary in our household, I felt that my expectations naturally lowered. Every day doesn’t have to be a mountaintop experience — because there’s always the next day.
Changes in our daily lives as families due to the coronavirus pandemic may have changed your role as a parent when it comes to cultivating a family prayer life. For some it might feel easier, and for some it might feel harder. The reality is that praying as a family takes work, but when we as parents approach our role with humility and trust, we can free ourselves from unrealistic expectations, self-judgement, and guilt, and allow our loving God to form us and our children through family prayer.
Colleen R. Vermeulen, MDiv, MNA, is an instructor and director of mission with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan. She provides ministry and leadership training and consultation for dioceses and parishes. Visit PracticalEvangelization.wordpress.com.
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