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“Can you do a pray?” my 3-year-old asks through the rustling of sheets. I lay beside him in the dark of his room, in this precious sacred time when I can get a few cuddles at the end of a bustling day.
“Of course, buddy,” I say. I can’t bring myself to correct his grammar. Besides, I like the activeness of turning the verb into a noun. Sometimes a prayer is too formal. So often I reach for the most rehearsed cliché words in my prayers for him. But a pray reminds me I can be playful when speaking to God, I can be thankful for the pedestrian things my child cares about: gratitude for a shortbread cookie from a friend who visited and listened to his long story about all the highlights of his 3-year-life, grief about yet another yellow fallen leaf from the jade plant, blessings for our loved ones living a plane trip away. A pray is ongoing. A pray is an action noun, like a kiss or a game. A pray is on a child’s terms.
“Sometimes I pray and sometimes I don’t,” he announces halfway through our suppertime grace. “That’s fine,” I say, “though you can wait until we’re done to tell us. Amen.” We began echo prayers years ago when the now 5-year-old wanted to pray out loud but cried that he didn’t know what to say. We’ve continued the rhythm, but now sometimes the 3-year-old doesn’t want to follow the call-and-response pattern of our mealtime prayer. His brain is busier, and sometimes he prefers to listen while we sit together in a circle holding hands over his cooling food.
Then we can pray for you, I think. At supper time he wants his words to rest, and by bedtime they have replenished again. When he has finally slowed down enough to let us coax him into pajamas and under the covers, he cherishes this time of reflection, of remembering the gifts the day brought, preparing for the rhythm of rest and gathering energy through the stillness to bounce back again in the morning.
This week I spoke to my spiritual director about taking time to be centered in Christ’s words. “I don’t know how to find the time for contemplation,” I said to her. I remember how, from my teenage years upwards, I did “quiet time” every morning: time in personal devotions, reading my Bible and praying. “When I try to wake up early, my kids do too. It’s like they can sense that I’m up.” She smiled. “And then between cooking, cleaning, and making sure they get outside, I don’t really have time to get away.” There is little quiet time anymore.
“God meets you in those times,” she said. She reminded me of Kathleen Norris’s book, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work, which celebrates the ways in which we experience God in our everyday domestic tasks. “The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation,” Norris writes, “are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry.” Amen, I say, and add “tucking my children in” to the list.
As I am about to start the bedtime “pray,” the 3-year-old suddenly transforms into an otter in the waves of the blanket. I wrap him in kelp for a few minutes, and then ask, “Shall I pray for you?”
He reaches over and takes my face in his hands. “Yes, Little One,” he says.
“Dear God,” I begin.
“God is everywhere,” he responds.
“God lived for a very long time.”
“God is still alive. God has always been.”
“I wish we could see God.” He speaks the words of Moses on the mountain, pulling the sheet over his face like a cloud.
“Me too. What do you think God looks like?”
“What kind of person?”
“A God person, because he is God.”
I wrap up the pray, then sing a few verses from a hymn written by John L. Bell of the Iona Community:
Thank you for the night, the sign that day is done,
That life is meant for rest and sleep to come.
Thank you for the quiet, as silence scatters sound,
While God, in both, is waiting to be found.
Thank you for the Word, which darkness can’t contain,
That life, laid down, is raised to life again.
The sung prayer leads us into dark, quiet, and stillness—places young children seldom dwell. These places can be scary, especially in our world, saturated with artificial light, screens, and packed schedules. But God goes before us into these unfamiliar spaces, active and restful. And we as parents remind them that they are not alone, even when we leave the room.
We lay there holding hands. God is here in this moment, I think. My kids speak God’s words so often. I am stressed, I am worried that others will think I am failing, but then I look into their faces shining with unconditional love and realize, all will be well.
It is always changing, the way we pray together. Sometimes he prays, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants a song, sometimes it is just a story. It is always new, and just as he is changing month by month, so is my faith and the way I think about it. Sometimes, after the many busy and active moments of prayer throughout the day, this is the one moment of still and quiet contemplation, the words “Yes, Little One” echoing in my head, holding hands as we drift to sleep.