Since our daughter was born, my husband and I have (attempted) a nightly prayer with our kids.
When she was a baby, we asked the angels to surround us, and prayed an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be while we held her (and while she slept…or thought about milk). Now at three and a half, we still ask the angels to surround us, but, instead of a rote prayer, we take turns answering the question: “Would you like to say something to God today?”
Usually, our daughter elects to say something she’s grateful for…last night she was grateful for “rocking in her rocking chair.” She has recently been grateful for her puppy dog “stuffie” (which means “stuffed animal,” for anyone who hasn’t watched 10,000 hours of Daniel Tiger), and “hugs from Daddy.” Lucky dad.
But not only do we have this creative little 3 ½ year old. We have our 19th-month old son. This little guy takes a different approach—he’s been more tactile in his prayer than his sister. (And if anybody ever tries to tell you that boys and girls are the same, they’re either lying or they’ve never taken care of kids.) For the Little Guy, he likes to “light” our electric candle, which involves batting it with a spit-covered fist. He also likes to “greet” some of our sacred images, like St. Francis, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which also involves batting said image with a spit-covered fist.
But, as children are wont to change, he has just begun to transition to a more verbal prayer. The last couple of nights, we’ve asked Little Guy the question: “Would you like to say something to God today?” The first time, we got nothing in particular—we got thumb-sucking (hence the spit-covered fist) and the continuance of snuggling with his bedraggled-beloved “blankie.”
But last evening we heard something new. We asked the question, “Would you like to say something to God today?” And his response was thus: “God. God? God. God-God-God! God!”
My husband and I glanced at each other. I asked Little Guy, “Would you like to say thank you to God for something?”
Little Guy says this: “God! God! Tahnk-oom (his version of thank you)! Bye Bye!”
Now, don’t worry, I’m not taking this “bye bye” as a note of existential abandonment. When our son says “Bye Bye,” he says it to people he loves. To people he trusts. To people he expects to see again.
In short, I think we have a lot to learn from these little mouths who, at least in our son’s case, have not said all that many words. My daughter shows us gratitude—an attitude of praise for the abundance God has given us: a comforting chair, a hug from someone who loves us. Or a cuddly stuffie.
Our son teaches us that just uttering the name of the Living One can be prayer enough. Sometimes we don’t have the words to pray. But we can say God’s name. And God will hear us. We can simply say “thank you”—because God already knows what is in our hearts. And when we say “Amen,” aren’t we saying the same thing as my little son’s “bye bye”? We say Amen to Someone we love. To Someone we trust. To Someone we expect to see again.
So, in our rugged paths of adulthood, filled with confusion, distress, and sadness, we might also be filled with worry about how to pray. And so from the mouths of (spit-fisted) babes I want to listen. Toddlers, teach me to pray.