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The Delicate Juggling Art of "Praying as a Family"
Part I: My own introduction to this topic of "Praying as a family" and 3 recommendations - for the "beginners" among us.
Part II: The translation of a wonderful French site dedicated to this very subject: Prier en famille - for the more "advanced" among us.
In this time of Advent, it feels
appropriate to review the various ways in which we can prepare ourselves for
the coming of Jesus Christ. What is it exactly that we can do and how can we
do it? This is quite a special time of the year and there's got to be more to
it than frantic shopping and endless food-feasts with family and friends and
co-workers, right? We all need to go on a diet anyhow and this constant marching
music of "Buy this! Buy that! Buy NOW!" is rather deafening. It is exactly in
this month of December that the difference between the spirit of the season
in the secular and consumer world and the Spirit of this Advent liturgical season
in the Church are definitively taking different paths... and I think that the
two of them are growing more and more apart as the years go by. Lucky for us,
we have the Mass and the readings of Scripture and the homilies (and our conscience!)
to constantly call us to another level, to redirect us to the proper level of
relationships vs. the level of things, because it is all about love, the love
of God and the love of neighbor, and there is more to love than a wrapped box
with pretty paper and lovely ribbons. Of course, a material gift can be the
way we express our love but it's definitively not the first way and it looks
to me like nowadays, in 2006, in our wonderful and wealthy and free democracies
of the West, the voice of the Church is the only one to constantly challenge
us to go beyond ourselves and beyond what we see and hear and feel. Thank God
for that challenge!
So when I thought of what is it that we can do to better prepare ourselves in this Advent Season, I thought of prayer right away. Praying is free, it's avalaible in many sizes, it's do-able at our own pace and it's self-sustainable, it will bring us many graces and it will yield better returns for you and for those around you than any other investment. We are all called to pray as individuals, in the privacy of our hearts, where we go to the "upper room and close the door and pray to our Father". And we are all called to pray as a group, as members of the Catholic Church, as we do each Sunday at Mass. But there is another dimension, which is within the family, within the Domestic Church. It is very important to develop a life of prayer within the family because that is one of the best way we can equip our children to face the world. And there is no better way to show them how to do it than to do it with them.
So for the "beginners" among us in FAMILY PRAYING, I recommend these 3 options to start:
| 1 - Read the life
of the Saints to your children:
This can be done each night, before going to bed. Or have an older sibling read and be there with them, listening. Reading to our children is one of the best educational activities we can do. Choosing specifically to read about one Saint is to kill two birds with one stone! The lives of the Saints are inspirational. They are our role models. There are many modern Saints. One day, someone gave me a prayer card for a recent Saint: Gianna Berretta Molla. On it was a picture of Gianna with her 2 young children, in an Italian ski resort, in the 60's! I was astonished that this woman is a Saint and here she was, helping one of her kid put on ski boots… It got me dreaming. Gianna is a wonderful pro-life and pro-family hero, a mother, a doctor, a skier - and a modern Saint. Saints are like giant signs along the road of life pointing us in the right direction. They themselves had to overcome many obstacles and their lives read like an adventure. Their goal was always to build the Church and to do God's work in the world. Make sure you finish the "reading moment" with your child with a short prayer to this particular Saint, asking for their blessing on your family.
| 2 - Say a daily blessing, a short
prayer, as a group:
Decide on a short prayer which you will say daily, at the very same time, when the family is all together: either a morning blessing just before going out the door or a blessing before dinner. The morning blessing is a wonderful thing to do before heading out the door if you all leave at the same time. Asking for God's protection on the family at the very beginning of this day, before everyone leaves the safety and warmth of the family nest, is a very good habit to instill in all of us. The blessing before dinner is also a very good habit, thanking the Lord for the food on the table and for the members of the family present, and also adding a thought for the ones that are not here or the ones who do not have enough to eat. But whether it is a morning blessing or grace before dinner, or both, find a prayer that you like, decide when you will do it, talk about it before-hand with everyone in the family and start doing it regularly. Start a "prayer box" or a "prayer binder" where you will keep the family's favorite prayers and where you can turn to for inspiration. Have the children add their own prayer to this treasure trove.
| 3 - Read Scripture together,
as a family project:
This is easier done with older children. But you could decide to read Mark's Gospel for instance, which is a very short one and a very "action oriented" one. It has only 16 chapters. If you decide to read it 2 or 3 times a week for a start, you'll be finished before Easter. For such a reading, it is good to start with a moment of calm or silence. Make sure the TV is off and everyone is unplugged and all the cells and Blackberries have been put away. Gather in a place where you can have some quiet time and which is comfortable too. Assign the reader ahead of time. Decide on the format: 1 minute of silent recollection, then the reading (usually around 5 minutes), then another 5 minutes of question and meditations on what we can take away from this reading and then finish with Our Father said aloud, as a team. The whole thing can be about 20 minutes but it will do wonders in strengthening the whole family as a unit, in practicing a moment of concentration, silence and listening, and in instilling hope and peace within each heart.
Suggestions for Praying as a Family:
The Christian family is the first place for education in prayer. Founded on the sacrament of marriage, it is the "Domestic Church" where the children of God learn to pray "as a Church" and to persevere in prayer. Particularly for young children, daily family prayer is the first evidence of the living memory of the Church awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit. (CCC 2685).
Why Pray "as a Family?"
"I tell you truly, if two of you on earth unite their voices to ask for anything, it will be granted by my Father in Heaven. Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them". (Mt 18, 19-20).
It is as a community that the family, the familial community, must honor God and worship him. Just as unity creates power, so group prayer has a greater impact on the heart of God. Our Savior also gave a special blessing to prayer offered as a group, and he proclaimed it to his disciples (Mt 18, 19-20). Because which souls will find themselves more truly and more intimately united by prayer in the name of Jesus Christ than souls united by the sacrament of marriage? Without neglecting individual prayer, all Christians should reserve a place in their lives for group prayer which reminds them of their brotherhood in Christ and their duty to save their souls not apart from each other but in collaboration. (Pius XII To Young Spouses 02-12-1941).
In the letter Familiaris Consortio (1981) "the tasks of the Christian family" here is how John Paul II presents family prayer to us: "Family prayer has its characteristics. It is prayer offered as a group: husband and wife together, parents and children together. Communion in prayer is both a fruit and a duty of this communion which is given by the sacraments of baptism and marriage. The words by which Jesus promises his presence (Mt 18, 19-20) can especially be applied to the members of the Christian family. Family prayer has as its original content the life itself of the family which, through its diverse episodes, is interpreted as a vocation coming from God and achieved as a filial response to His call… The dignity and the responsibility of the Christian family as the Domestic Church can only be realized with the continual help of God, which will surely be granted if it is implored in prayer with trust and humility".
The concrete example, that is to say the living witness of the parents, is a fundamental and irreplaceable element of education in prayer: It is only in praying with their children that the father and mother profoundly penetrate the hearts of their children, leaving traces there that the events of life will not succeed in erasing. (John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio 60).
Let us now listen to the call that Pope Paul VI addressed to parents: "Mothers, Do you teach your children Christian prayers?…Do you get them used to thinking of the sufferings of Christ when they are sick, to invoke the help of the Holy Virgin and the Saints? Do you recite the Rosary as a family? And you, Fathers, do you know how to pray with your children, with the whole family community? Your example, accompanied by the rectitude of your thoughts and your acts, supported by some common prayers, is worth a life lesson. It is a particularly praiseworthy act of worship. Through it, you will bring peace into the walls of your home. "Pax huic domui". Peace to this house. Don't forget it. It is in this way that you build up the Church." (Paul VI: discourse August 11, 1976).
A Favorable Environment
Education in prayer must be done in the atmosphere and the environment of the family. When it is a Christian family, prayer is no longer something artificial. It is integrated into the profound rhythm of life, that the child might pray at the beginning of his day, at the end of his day, and each time that an opportunity presents itself. There is a whole little family liturgy which seems to me to be very important and very necessary. A favorable environment is necessary in order to be able to pray….and for that, family prayer is an extremely important thing. For a child, it is very important to see his mother (and his father) praying next to him, to kneel down together to pray and address themselves to the same person, He who is Our Savior, to God the Creator, to He on Whom we depend radically and Who has given us everything, to He Who is infinitely good, to tell Him everything we hold in our hearts. (Father M-D Philippe, op. At the Heart of Love; Ed. Le Sarment Fayard 1987).
The Practice of Family Prayer
Faith is only alive if it is first PRAYER. The education of our children in prayer begins with our own prayer. It is only in praying with their children that the mother and father deeply penetrate the hearts of their children, as John Paul tells us (Fam. Cons. 60).
A "Familial Liturgy"
This term-proposed to us by Father M-D Philippe in his book At the Heart of Love- extends beyond the scope of only evening prayer as a family: it includes all the "rites" which are going to give a rhythm to family life and create a habit of prayer: morning prayer; grace; rosary; evening prayer. To make a habit of prayer does not mean "to be a slave to it": there are sometimes exceptional situations in which cases we must keep a certain flexibility and adapt ourselves to circumstances (unexpected trips…). But the advantage of good habits is to make us spontaneously resume our routine once the situation has returned to normal.
Different Types of Prayer
"The living witness of parents": The example of their own prayer is crucial in encouraging their children in prayer. Here, we must distinguish two things: the individual prayer, one's prayer life; and the family prayer, prayer as a group. This family prayer most often takes place in the evening, to finish the day. Morning prayer is more difficult to do as a group because of the various schedules. Each family organizes it the best way possible: (for example, during the commute by car on the way to class; or, each child says it privately.) The important thing is that it exists.
Whatever the family practice of this morning prayer, let us teach our children as soon as they wake up, to offer to God their heart and their day: this is a private prayer, a habit to keep during our all life, which will be so rich in spiritual fruits for our souls. Children don't have any difficulty doing this, but it is up to us to first give them this good habit. Prayer and Children "Pray in the secret of your heart…" Not all children are necessarily attracted to this… But some are: nothing should stop us from encouraging them in it. This is assuming that we have made of this a regular practice ourselves. If we provide such an example, it will seem much more natural to children to do it as well. But, be that as it may, we should definitely not make it something mandatory but should only respond to the personal desire of a child, to encourage him, to support him.
General Guidelines So that Family Prayer Will Succeed
A Moment of Silence to Begin
This time of silence is indispensable for creating an atmosphere favorable to prayer. Prayer is being attentive to God. And to be attentive to God, we must be inattentive to everything else but God. How could we succeed in this without a moment of silence to eliminate everything else which is running around in our heads and put ourselves back in the presence of God? Before beginning prayer, we thus need to distance ourselves from our habitual preoccupations so that we may create a free space for God. This moment of silence, it is the return to calm, the decompression chamber between the agitation of the end of the day and finally putting ourselves in the presence of God, a needed prelude to all prayer. This habit of silence can seem difficult at first glance. It is enough to practice it a little to start enjoying the benefits. And to educate our children in prayer, in true prayer, which is the exchange of love with God, it is necessary-and quite possible-to get children used to it early on. ( cf. On Mothers' Knees, p. 37-48).
Our Own Attitude
It is truly decisive in achieving calm. If we ourselves have it internally (when necessary, a rapid mental prayer to the Holy Spirit will give it to us!), it will be easier to obtain it from the children. Like agitation or fuss, silence can be contagious. If a child shows itself to be agitated, recalcitrant, we absolutely must not yell: the effect is disastrous! There is nothing like it for creating a charged atmosphere. To achieve calm, it is enough to stand up, and without a word, calmly, ask him to leave the room. Then you can begin the prayer.
This issue of silence is perhaps the one which is the most problematic for parents. To achieve it, we must already practice it ourselves, have the habit of it and taste it in the depths of our souls. It will be much easier if there is first an interior silence. The future of family prayer depends a lot on the atmosphere that the parents have succeeded in creating right away around prayer. If it is too tense, nervous, rigid, children will experience it as a chore and only the threat of punishment will permit them to finish it (if at all!). If it's totally casual, if there is no true silence, if it's a moment of amusement, we will not have advanced in the sense of a communal prayer. (Father Michel Gitton-Family Prayer, p. 19).
The Importance of Environment
Have a corner favorable to contemplation ( Father Gitton, p. 59): The choice of a place conducive to prayer is not indifferent to the truth of prayer: This can be a "prayer corner"…. In a Christian family, this type of small oratory benefits group prayer. (CCC 2691). Have beautiful pictures which may vary according to liturgical season. Have candles, flowers… Have hymns. Have gestures (Father Gitton, p. 20): Associating body postures to the prayer is very important, especially more so when children are younger: children understand movements (MONTESSORI). It is through his body that he will be able to acquire the sense of the sacred, of the divine, of respect…
Duration of Prayer
This should be adjusted based on the age of the children and on their true capacity to stay attentive: the younger the child, the shorter the prayer should be. Attention cannot be maintained beyond a certain limit. Two minutes of true attention are better than five full of distractions. It will also be good to adjust prayer duration based on the fatigue or the excitement of the children: in certain cases, it will be strongly recommended to shorten it.
Preparing Prayer in Advance
Even if this can seem somewhat of an impediment-taking the necessary time is not always easy-it can bring a lot of advantages. Notably, it permits us to vary the prayer depending on the day and the circumstances and to avoid routine or improvisation….
It is important not to be distracted during prayer (telephone calls should go to the answering machine) … as much as possible. Praying is consecrating time to the Lord: He comes before anything else. Everything else can wait.
Each family creates its own style of prayer
Each family creates its own style of prayer based first on its own family history (father, mother) and its own evolution. But family prayer will also evolve over the years based on the age of the children. Some constants, nonetheless:
The Role of the Father of the Family
It is very desirable that it be the father of the family who leads the prayer whenever possible. But his late return often prevents him from being present during the prayer time of the little ones. There may also be other cases which make this impossible. It is then the mother who "guides" the prayer, or sometimes an older brother or sister.
The Prayer File
Making a prayer file with your favorite prayers, classified by themes, is the best way to progressively enrich the family treasure chest of prayer. For this, we draw from the treasure put at our disposition by the Church in the liturgical texts. Let us think particularly of the prayer of the psalms, which are of a great spiritual wealth but which we often do not know well enough. This binder made of our favorite prayers can also facilitate our prayer life: such and such text, one day, speaks specially to our heart.
Participation of Older Children
As soon as children know how to read well, around 8 or 9, for example, we can entrust them with the responsibility of preparing the prayer: choice of texts or of hymns, each according to his taste. When parents are absent, one can sometimes entrust the oldest child with the responsibility of leading the prayer… (unless collective uproar would result!)
The Presence of the Youngest Children
The presence of the youngest children at family prayer sometimes poses problems. In theory, it is good that the entire family be united at the moment of evening prayer. (Family Prayer. Gitton, p. 66-73). In practicality, for numerous reasons, this is not always possible, either because of schedule conflicts, or the length of the prayer, or its content, or perhaps because the youngest are behaving badly or clowning around, seeking to gain attention in front of the older ones. In certain families, evening family prayer includes, for the older children (beginning at 5 or 6) a time of silent prayer (4 to 5 minutes) before the "prayer with the whole group" part when the youngest children are brought in. Let us note, however, that some children may prefer to do this personal and silent prayer alone, in his room. One can also do the reverse: begin the prayer all together and let the youngest leave before the others in order to continue the prayer with only the older children. In this case, we are not talking about a time for contemplative prayer, but for longer group prayer with the older children. But if we let the youngest children leave, it is always with the same conditions: leave without noise, softly, respecting the silence of prayer and not bothering the others. This is in an effort to instill in them the sense of the sacred.
The Content of Family Prayer
"Family prayer has as its original content the very life of the family…" (JPII). First, Put yourself in the Presence of God. Prayer is a time that we consecrate to God: We must thus make ourselves completely "attentive to God"- thus, the time of preliminary silence. But this silence is not muteness: we can "fill" this silence with one verse or another of Holy Scripture; this can help us place ourselves before God, the Most High, the All Powerful.
We must set our sights on keeping "the vital minimum", the basic prayers: Our Father; Hail Mary; Examination of Conscience; Act of Contrition. Furthermore, if possible, depending on the age of the children: I believe in God; Acts of Faith, Acts of Hope, Acts of Charity. Or, the equivalent of a "short cut": the prayer of the children of Fatima: "My God, I believe, I adore…" But reciting the same thing every evening risks quickly becoming routine. Therefore lies the interest, and even the necessity, of varying prayer.
The importance of a folder (See Above). But from time to time, we can also draw from the missal, the daily mass, the saint of the day, or anything else which is relevant to the what is happening that day. Vary prayer based on liturgical season: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Passion Week, Easter, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart, the Assumption, Angels, All Saints, Christ the King. A very creative mother can prepare liturgical bulletin boards with her children which allows the deepening of one's own spirituality during the time in question (Advent, Lent,…). The rosary, so recommended by our Pope John Paul II, obtains great graces for us (See also Family Prayer-Gitton p. 77). The recitation of Compline permits us to join in the great evening prayer of the entire Church. Therefore, it has great value.
Let us also think of litanies
Children, even little five-year-olds, really love this form of prayer. Let's clarify that we are not obligated to recite all the invocations: especially with young children, we can say between five and six each day. In May, the month of Mary; in June, the month of the Sacred Heart. We know the litanies of the Holy Virgin or of the Sacred Heart very well; we think less often of that of Saint Joseph (Month of March), of the Holy Spirit (the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost), or again, of All Saints Day, the litany of all the Saints. Saturday evening: prepare for Sunday Mass, notably by reading the Gospel.
On the Feast Days of Saints: Read, based on your preference, a prayer, a verse of the entrance hymn, or of the Communion hymn, an epistle, or the Gospel.
Adapt Prayer Based on the Circumstances of the Life of the Children That Day: -lies, arguments, loving each other…but also: -accepting a hardship, an unforeseen difficulty, a sickness, a loss… -preparation for an important event: a baptism, a confirmation of one of the children, -a marriage, the ordination of a priest, whether a friend or a member of the family
The Intentions of Prayer They favor an opening of the heart which it is good to get children used to from their early childhood: each child can propose some each evening, or several times per week….
Difficulties With Family Prayer
The Youngest Children Behave Badly or Act up
There is no "miracle formula" or ready-made solution, except for the essential importance of remaining calm (we, the parents) and of remaining in control of the situation…Some solutions: The fact that the youngest needs to be put to bed earlier than the others justifies that we have him say his prayer alone, beforehand, with his mother or his older sister. Principal advantage: a prayer adapted to his age in length and content. And this will only last a few months…
If he is a little older, old enough to understand, we will make him realize that if he doesn't want to (or cannot) behave well, it is because he is not yet old enough: out of respect for the presence of God, which is sacred, we keep him apart until he can behave well and respect the recollection needed. But this must be a temporary isolation, a time during which he quiets down or during which he desires to return to the others: we let him return on the condition that he behaves well.
For us, returning to our prayer, the doors of our bedrooms remain open: the child will know that he can come to rejoin us as long as he respects our silence. We can reasonably hope that as he grows up, he will quiet down and will be able to take back his place at the family prayer. Be that as it may, it will be good to include him again, with the entire family, on Saturday evening, for instance, in preparation for Sunday. It is up to each family to find the formula best adapted to a given situation: A father complains of his four little boys who create havoc each evening and make prayer impossible… To avoid the temptation of group misbehavior, is it not best then to take each child alone (or two by two) just before putting them to bed, for a very simplified prayer to say "Good evening to Jesus"?
Routine is a very real danger which risks, over time, to extinguish the small, fragile flame which is our loving relationship with God. The repetition every evening of the same formulas will inevitably sink into a sad monotony! Thus we see the benefit of varying prayer based on the liturgy, and family circumstances, and on what the children have experienced during the day, etc.
The children are all worked up, there is electricity in the air, uncontrollable giggles…. It is exactly then that a few moments of silence are indispensable: They produce relaxation for everyone. But they will only be effective if the children already have the habit of silence. It is furthermore strongly recommended to shorten the prayer this particular evening…. Another solution: exceptionally (due to a late return from a trip, for example) the children can say each say their prayers alone, in their own beds.
The Father's Late Return
Each family must find the best balance between its own practical demands. Obviously, one cannot keep children up too late; they can instead say the prayers alone with their mother. But the prayers of Saturday and Sunday evenings will only acquire from this more depth and more solemnity: Father is there, and he is the one who leads the prayers.
One senses a more or less silent or expressed hostility towards family prayer which the adolescent now experiences as a "constraint." The problem is then much more delicate. There is no general rule or ready-made solution; it must be tailored, taking into account the particular case we have in front of us.
The solution is always to be found in prayer…often by successive trial and error, and is never definitive. A positive solution consists of suggesting that he prepare the prayer himself. For this, it is desirable to begin rather early so that the habit of prayer is in place before the crisis of adolescence. Excuse them from the less important: Attendance at family prayer (certain adolescents display an obstinate refusal to do family prayer but in fact pray alone in their rooms….). Don't excuse them from the essential: Attendance at Sunday Mass.
The Benefits of Family Prayer
Family Prayer Inspires Vocations
I would not be here today, I would not be a priest of Jesus if, at the age of 13, Jesus had not come to call me. And how? Precisely at the moment when we prayed together as a family in the evening. (Daniel-Ange)
A force, a drive…to Face Up to Our Responsibilities
Prayer does not at all represent an avoidance of daily tasks but constitutes the drive which carries the Christian family to assume its responsibilities as the first and fundamental block of human society and to fully carry them out. (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 62).
The dignity and responsibility of the Christian family as Domestic Church can only be attained with the continual grace of God, which will inevitably be given if it is asked for with trust and humility. (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 59). Remain faithful to the tradition of prayer in the family home. Blessed by God, this prayer fortifies faith, increases the fear, the respect of God and trust in Providence; it increases mutual respect and love, and fills the soul with courage in trying times. (Pius XII To German Catholics 08-16-1950)
Unity of the Family in Love and in Truth
Prayer reinforces the solidarity and spiritual unity of the family, contributing to making it participate in the Power of God. In the solemn "nuptial blessing" during the marriage ceremony, the celebrant invokes the Lord for the new spouses: "Make the grace of the Holy Spirit descend upon them so that through Your love filling their hearts, they will remain faithful to the conjugal union." It is from this spreading of the Spirit that the inner strength of the families will be born, as will the power to unify them in love and truth. (John Paul II. Letter to Families, 4).
The efficient participation in the life and mission of the Church in the world is proportional to the faith and intensity of prayer through which the Christian family unites itself to the fruitful Vine which is Christ the Lord. (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 62) Experience shows the importance of the role of the family living according to moral norms so that the man who is born in it and educated in it takes without hesitation the path of Goodness which is always written in his heart. Facing so many organizations supported by very powerful means whose goal really seems to be the breakup of the family…we see how crucial is the witness of all the families who live their vocation each day; how urgent is a great prayer from all families to rise up and spread over the entire world…(John Paul II, Letter to Families 5)
REFERENCES AND LINKS
- the text above is translated from "prier en famille" dedicated to foster
family prayer: www.prierenfamille.com
and here is the article
- see an earlier article that I wrote on The precarious position of the domestic church in the global village see article
- part Four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a wonderful guide for prayer, very inspiring: here from the USCCB
- Women for Faith and Family here
- Building the Domestic Church here