Praying with ChildrenKATHY COFFEY
When we love a child, we want to pass on what’s most precious. So how do we teach children to pray?
If the task seems bewildering, and the gap between generations huge, we start with ourselves. My Jesuit spiritual director was also an avid hiker. He explained that before a mountain hike, he'd talk me through it first: "there will be a steep 30 yards, but then a lovely meadow, and if you can go another mile, we'll come to an alpine lake." The trick with giving directions is: we must have first visited the place ourselves. We can't expect children to plunge avidly into prayer if we haven't demonstrated that we pray regularly and with gusto.
Ever hear of an exercise class where you just talked about it? No coach would allow the idle chatter of "It'd be nice to stretch or do sit-ups." The people who benefit from jogging do it regularly. So our children must see us making sense of our experience through the lens of prayer, trying to understand where God has been active, leaving an unmistakable but invisible imprint.
We can model different ways of finding God within the texts of our lives. God hasn't ceased being revelation any more than God has stopped being love. So we continue to find God in the peculiar confluences and connections that make up each day. Children enjoy the stories of "how grandpa met grandma," "why we moved the family west," "the day I got the perfect job," or "how we found this house when we were lost." Those family legends carry a deeper dimension: it was God's grace that attracted grandpa to grandma or intervened for all the other events which compose a life.
When her son Matthew was ten, Amy introduced a pattern of reflection during their daily walk to the school bus. She'd ask, "How's your body feeling – healthy, full of juice to help people? How's your heart – are you open to others? How's your mind – are you ready to learn?" Anticipating the daily questions, Matthew became more attentive to himself and where he fit into the human family.
So, too, families who practice "pj prayer" at bedtime sensitize children to the presence of God in an ordinary day. A form of the Ignatian examen, it asks in child-friendly language, "where were you happiest today – or closest to God? Where were you lonely or angry, feeling far from God?" Thus we learn to repeat, as much as possible, the fruitful actions and avoid the empty ones.
The same pattern can encourage gratitude by reviewing the day's highlights each night. It's an easy transition from asking, "What was most wonderful today?" to thanking God for those gifts. Over time, children (and adults) who become attuned to what they DO have are less likely to whine about what they DON'T have.
Kathy Coffey. "Praying with Children." St. Anthony Messenger (November, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Kathy Coffey taught for fifteen years at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Regis Jesuit University. She has won thirteen awards from the Catholic Press Association, the Foley Poetry Award from America magazine, the Independent Publishers Book Award and the Associated Church Press Award for Editorial Courage. Among her books are God In The Moment: Making Everyday A Prayer, Hidden Women of the Gospels, Mary, Women of Mercy, and Immersed in the Sacred: Discovering the Small s Sacraments. She has written catechetical resources such as Children and Christian Initiation, Baptism and Beyond and Confirmation: Anointed and Sealed with the Spirit, and many articles in Catholic periodicals like America, U.S. Catholic, St. Anthony Messenger and Catechumenate. Kathy gives retreats and workshops nationally and internationally, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The mother of four, she lives in Denver, Colorado.
Copyright © 2010 Kathy Coffey
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