I have never prayed more often or more simply than when I was pregnant. My constant prayer before Peter was born was “Please.” Afterwards, for nearly as many months, my prayer was “Thank you.” It was all I could manage, and all that felt really necessary. I don’t know how prayer works. I do not believe that prayer changes outcome, but that has never kept me from praying. “The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,” says the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Prayer understands the importance of naming that which is too hard, too awful, too wonderful, and giving it over to the power which is beyond us.
What is prayer? Anne Lamott in her terrific book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers defines prayer as “communication from one’s heart to God.” Communication is key here. Prayer is conversation. It’s not just us, talking or asking. We are also deeply listening with our hearts. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about what prayer isn’t. Prayer is not a Christmas list, and God is not Santa Claus. Prayer is not about what we want or even what we wish for, although it might be about what we really need, or what we most deeply hope for. Prayer does not assume or expect answers. That’s the hardest part. Why, then, do we pray? Prayer brings us close to God. When we pray for someone in need, we are lifting them to God’s presence. When we pray for our own needs, we are giving them over to God.
How do we pray? When do we pray? The Book of Common Prayer (which is full of great stuff—you should definitely get one) says that prayer is “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” That’s from the Catechism, an outline of the faith found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer that is a basic summary of what is broadly taught in Episcopal churches. What a tremendously freeing description this is: responding, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. That means prayer can be just about anything, any time, any where. We don’t have to be in church or around the table or kneeling beside our beds. We don’t even have to be still! We don’t need a book or a script or words at all. Prayer is about intention: Set aside the time, make a space for God and for sharing what is on your heart or mind. You don’t even have to call it prayer. You can call it family time or quiet time, and then together reflect on how it was also time spent with God.
Prayer can be silence, even for children. Ring a bell or strike a chime and keep silence sitting together, feet on the floor or seated on a cushion until the sound fades away. Gradually stretch the time of keeping silence to three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. That’s when it gets really interesting. Meditation and mindfulness techniques are great for all ages. This is a way of being more attuned to the presence of God, of letting stillness and silence bring heightened awareness and a diminishing of the noisy world, the distractions of our own thoughts, which are separate from our true selves. This is time and space apart.
Music can be prayer. According to St. Augustine (354-430 CE), to sing is to pray twice! What songs or pieces of music bring you close to God? Ask the same question of your teenager. Do this on a regular basis, because there will always be new responses. You could make a mix of tunes for family listening with just this purpose in mind. This could be Bach, jazz, reggae, or rap. Does this mean going to a concert can be prayerful? Absolutely, and so can going to church, even if one goes “just for the music,” which is sometimes the reason my son, who sings in the choir, gives. We have been known to sing at bedtime. It can be a hymn, a lullaby, or Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” gentle tunes to calm the busy day.
Making the sign of the cross (by touching the forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder and sternum again) is a body prayer, which I have long understood as a way of drawing God into us. Yoga and ta’i chi are ways of praying with the body. Although they come from other religious traditions, they can be deeply spiritual for Christians. I asked a friend whether she saw a connection between her son’s karate practice (rigorous, several days a week) and prayer; when she asked him, Harry (age 11) immediately responded, “I can’t explain it, but it connects me to God somehow.” Our bodies are in touch with the holy in ways words cannot explain. Dance can be embodied prayer, and if you have never seen Stephen Colbert dancing to “King of Glory, King of Peace” watch this now and know that laughter, too, can be a way of praying.
Walking and hiking are equally ways to pray. When you walk, take care to notice the presence of God. This will seem obvious in nature. Waterfalls, streams, the ocean, trees, meadows and mountains, the sunset, and the starry sky all tell us of the glory of God. As you walk, your kids might collect acorns, colored leaves, or interesting stones to set in a shallow bowl in the center of your table, or wildflowers to put in a jam jar. Preschoolers can be given an egg carton with a different color in each recess and asked to find something from God’s creation to place in them. Older kids can take photos (with a smartphone?) of where they find God in nature, or in the neighborhood. On a city or suburban walk, notice which people (the dog walkers, the grocery baggers) or places (the car wash and all who drive through it, the diner and those who prepare the food we enjoy) can be included in your prayers. Notice, too, where prayers are being responded to: The soup kitchen? The hospital? The art museum?
Walking a labyrinth is a wonderful way for adults and kids to pray. Labyrinths are different from mazes: there is only one way in and one way out, so you can’t get lost. It’s a journey to the center and out again, providing a clear path and a walking rhythm that promotes inner calm. Find out if there is a labyrinth near you. Churches and cathedrals are obvious locations you might find one, but they turn up in unexpected places, too: I have walked labyrinths at the beach and at a children’s hospital. There is labyrinth right near my office, at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, created to commemorate the first anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy. If you are feeling adventurous you can draw one with sidewalk chalk or mark one on a lawn with stones or pool noodles. One year at a medieval-themed summer camp we laid out a labyrinth on the auditorium floor with masking tape, dimmed the lights, put on a CD of Gregorian chant and sent mixed-age groups of six- to eighteen-year-olds through, pacing them with about 30 seconds between each participant. The teenagers were shocked by how quiet and reverent the young ones were, and how many times they wanted to walk through slowly and in silence. Afterward, when I asked them what they noticed about the experience, an eight-year-old told me she came close to God there.
Making art, coloring a mandala, even doodling can be prayer. Set up an art corner, or if you live in a small space, make an art box and fill it with heavy white paper, scraps of ribbon, old greeting cards, colored pencils, marking pens, glue sticks, a pair of scissors. My favorite art activity is to make collages––small ones, about the size of a postcard––just right for a prayer card, a get-well card, or a thank you card to give away. There are amazing coloring books available now that are perfect for praying: intricate patterns, nature designs, and symbols of faith. Sybil MacBeth found herself unable to concentrate, short of words, and needing to pray. She took a pad of paper and a basket of markers out to the porch, drew a leaf shape and wrote her friend’s name inside it. Soon her page was covered with shapes and names, colors and designs. Sybil had discovered prayer through doodling and subsequently wrote a book about how to do it, Praying in Color. When I introduced this form to a group of choristers, twelve-year-old Eli turned to a friend and said with surprise, “I never knew praying could be so much fun!”
Like Eli, I was both delighted and relieved to discover that prayer could be fun. As someone with a rather haphazard prayer life, I have found that an expansive view of prayer also expands my sense of the Holy, making me more mindful of God’s presence in the everyday.
I imagine that the very first prayer was “thank you.”
Saying grace at meals is a lovely practice, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to begin or re-introduce it. Sung graces are great for little ones. If you sing the Doxology in church, you might start with that:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below, Praise God above ye heavenly host, Praise Creator, Son and Holy Ghost.
The first grace my son Peter learned as a toddler is sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”:
God our father, God our mother, we thank you, we thank you, for this food before us, for this food before us. Amen, amen.
Friends and family are a great resource for collecting graces and blessings from other cultures and religious traditions, which can be a great way “in” to this universal and timeless tradition. This year, you could crowd-source your Thanksgiving dinner blessing using this simple template from Episcopal priest Kyle Oliver, whose Creative Commons Prayer website has all kinds of engaging multimedia prayers. Sybil MacBeth, creator of one of my favorite prayer practices, Praying in Color, has some fun turkey templates you could use for gratitude prayers.
The Quakers have a very simple said grace:
Us and this, God bless.
Their most common form of grace, however, is everyone holding hands around the table in silence. It’s easy to add the invitation to each person to name something for which they are thankful. Cultivating a practice of gratitude, a habit of noticing and naming what we are thankful for is of profound benefit to our physical, spiritual and emotional health. Doing Good Together offers a number of great ideas for families who want to practice active gratitude, and learn more about the science behind it. You could keep a thankfulness journal to which each family member contributes throughout the year, or throughout the long Thanksgiving weekend, ask each person to write their thanksgivings on leaves of colored paper to fill a jar or a window. My son Peter noticed and remarked on a significant decrease in complaints when our household became more intentionally grateful.
Here is my go-to grace:
Bless this food to our use and us to your loving service, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.
Christians and Jews end prayers with a declarative, amen, which in Hebrew means “firm.” It is nearly the same for Muslims, who use the related Arabic word “amin.” Think of it as a strong YES. Let it be so.
Pray in whatever way works for you and your family, pray when you can, and where you can. Pray for what you need, what your loved ones need, what the world needs. Give thanks, give praise, give your heart. And let the people say, Amen.
Here’s my favorite book for Thanksgiving, The Greatest Table by Michael Rosen, newly reissued with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander.
Kids can make these adorable thank-you cards over the long weekend, just in time for the gift-giving season.
Now you can preorder this lovely book, Common Prayer for Children and Families by Jenifer Gamber and Timothy Seamans, which includes table graces and prayers for expressing gratitude throughout the day and year.