Parents — whether they believe it or not, whether they like it or not, whether they feel qualified or not — are chiefly responsible for making their children disciples of Christ. This is not a new claim, even on this blog. But I would like to offer a short reflection about children and prayer, especially “set prayers” that can be learned.
Many still believe such prayers are inauthentic. Of late a colleague of mine suffered some cartoonish e-mail from a trolling fundamentalist: it seems my fellow priest was offending God by using inauthentic “rote prayers” (evidently 17th-century Puritans now have email). What’s odd is that the same people so worried about memorizing prayers tend to be quite enthusiastic about memorizing large passages of Scripture, as a form of spiritual discipline.
Both are worthwhile pursuits: our children’s grammar and faith should be shaped by God’s Word written and by the legacy of previous generations of prayerful Christians who have knelt before the throne of grace. Let’s use memory verses and the prayer book Offices.
My own children hear a shortened form of Evening Prayer every night. While reviewing this daily pattern with the kids, I mentioned to my wife that I can still pull out a mental file from my earliest years of life, including the prayer I was taught as a child, the familiar “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. I remember the prayer itself, as well I the people for whom we prayed every night following the prayer.
My three-year-old son now easily recites the Lord’s Prayer as well as St. Augustine’s prayer from Evening Prayer (“Keep watch dear Lord …”). Am I proud of this? In a sense, yes, even though he tries to do all kinds of goofy stuff while we pray, including handstands. We’re not the Ferrar family of Little Gidding.
My wife and I sometimes wonder if he understands what we are doing at all. But whether he understands all the elements of our prayer is not entirely relevant. We are talking to God as a family and, more to the point, he and his one-year old sister are being soaked in a Christian grammar, in how to speak about and to God, how to recollect the day — giving thanks for the good and offering contrition for failures and sins — how to lift up those who hurt and ache in body or spirit, how to enumerate a similar litany of family members and friends, and how to voice our hopes to God for the days and years to come and place ourselves in his sovereign hands.
Like any grammar, my children will absorb the rhythms and rules of prayer largely without realizing it. Do they understand the finer points of Trinitarian theology? Not yet. But, in the same way they are learning to speak English, they are learning to pray to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This habitus is shaping them in ways that will bear fruit, if not in the immediate present, then certainly in the future.