"Well, the only thing left to do is pray." This sentence came up in conversation over the Christmas holiday, during a conversation about a very difficult and complicated situation a friend is facing. Although I didn't utter that phrase this time, I might well have at another moment. Sometimes we can be accomplished problem-solvers, tempted to try to untie life's knots all on our own. Once in a while, though, we hit our limit and realize only the power of God can untangle a particular snarl. Then we remember that prayer thing.
Pegging prayer as a last-ditch effort arouses a conflicted response in me: on one hand, making time to pray is always a good thing, regardless of how low on the priority list it is. On the other hand, God is the Alpha and the Omega, the source of all being, and it is beyond crazy to think we can accomplish anything worthwhile without his grace. "Well, the only thing left to do is pray" makes it sound like we're letting the Creator of the Universe out of the Time-Out corner just long enough to lend a hand. The very good news is that God, being perfect and loving and merciful and all, gets up out of that corner time and again.
The Apostleship of Prayer just produced a new packet for children, and I think we grown-up types might like to see it too. The packet is called the "3 for 3 Prayer Experiment," and it challenges students to observe three deliberate times of prayer each day for three days, and then reflect on the results.
The idea for this experiment was inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Throughout the Exercises, St. Ignatius includes directives to help create a suitable atmosphere for the retreat. To help retreatants engage their entire selves--their external and internal actions, their intentions, thoughts, words, and deeds--St. Ignatius suggests adjusting customary creature comforts. Taking less food, remaining in darkness, limiting sleep, imposing penances, all these things might help retreatants loosen attachments to worldly things and feel more keenly their dependence on God alone.
St. Ignatius is careful to note that each person is unique. Whatever fasting, prayer postures, and penances people observe should always be tested through "changes," or what I like to call experimenting.
St. Ignatius writes,
When someone making the Exercises fails to find what he or she desires . . . it is often useful to make some change in eating, sleeping, and other forms of penance, so that we do penance for two or three days, and then omit it for two or three days. Furthermore, for some persons more penance is suitable, and for others less. . . . Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better than we do, through changes of this sort he often enables each of us to know what is right for her or him. (Spiritual Exercises #89)
This experimenting is one aspect of the great genius of Ignatian spirituality. We read in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, "Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil." All of us can apply this to our prayer lives, including children.
Children are natural learners; they tend to test everything by instinct. Sometimes, like in that classic Triple Dog Dare tongue-freezing-to-a-flagpole scene from A Christimas Story, children test things despite their better judgement and the warnings from others. I remember once testing what would happen if I used my finger to block the steam coming from a hot-water vaporizer. (Steam burns are terribly effective, if not very attractive, teachers.) Children like to experiment, so why not encourage them to experiment with prayer?
The idea is certainly not to test God, to see whether a singing leprechaun astride a rainbow-colored unicorn will appear upon a pile of M&Ms before breakfast. Rather, the goal of a prayer experiment is to show ourselves what a difference prayer makes in our lives--not just the last-ditch-effort kind of prayer we embrace in times of distress, but the kind of daily prayer that sustains us like our daily bread. Here is the overview of the prayer experiment:
Included in the packet are the words to a morning offering prayer, lunchtime prayer reminders to cut out and drop into lunch boxes, a guide to praying the evening review, and space to record and reflect on what happens during and after prayer.
Prayer is powerful. When we share our heart’s desires with the Lord, beautiful and wonderful things happen: our hearts become more like the generous Heart of Jesus, and we grow in awareness of how God listens to us and gives us all good things. At the end of the book of Job, God tells Job’s friends to ask him to pray on their behalf: “Let my servant Job pray for you. To him I will show favor” (Job 42:8). Through God’s grace, Job demonstrates his daily faithfulness to the Lord, and God delights in the prayers of his faithful servant. God always hears our prayers, and, as our loving Father, gives us all we need: his holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).
A lot of us make new year resolutions to pray more. And then we make Lenten resolutions to pray more. And then summer comes. Sometimes we're just not sure how to start. Children can feel that way too. Perhaps some direction from St. Ignatius can help: try it. Spend a few days praying more than usual, at times that work well, and then reflect on that effort. The desire to pray comes from God, of course. Paying attention to that invitation is also God's gift. Now that all the holiday presents are unwrapped and the Christmas trees sit on curbs waiting for garbage trucks, we can delight in the daily gift God offers: himself. Daily prayer can help us acquire the habit of searching for God in all things. Prayer matters. As Jesus says, "Come, and you will see" (John 1:39).
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