Prayer doesn’t always come easy for me, particularly extemporaneous prayer—putting my thoughts, needs, and desires in front of God off the top of my head. When I realized that the way to teach my son to pray would be by praying with him, I tried using a simple format: “What do you want to thank God for today?” I’d ask. The answer was often as silly as it was profound: “Dumptwuck,” he’d answer. “And da moon and stahs.” I’d follow up by asking who we should ask God to bless. His response was long; he’d list friends from day care, teachers, extended family, and, of course, Mama and Papa.
These prayers worked well for bedtime, but for dinner the rote “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food” fell flat. I opened up a whole new can of worms when I introduced the idea that we could say “her” instead of “him.”
(He caught on quickly, but I’m sure this was annoying—at least—to his Catholic preschool teachers.)
So we turned to the daily office, another name for the Liturgy of the Hours, after a friend created a prayer booklet with the psalms, scripture readings, and prayers for each day. She used a short form meant for individual and family devotion. Having a portable, easy-to-use prayer booklet meant there was no searching for the right day’s readings and prayers.
My family gave it a try during dinner one night. And I do mean during dinner. Not before with candles lit, but truly during—with grilled cheese sandwiches literally in our mouths along with the prayers. Between sips of wine (it pairs remarkably well with the humble grilled cheese), my husband and I traded off between the scripture reading and the psalm. We said the Lord’s Prayer together and finished with the concluding prayer.
I figured that this ritual would eventually lead to questions from my son and some good discussions as he began to understand the words of scripture. I did not expect that in just a few months, at 2 years old, he would begin to recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory. Then he started to extend his arms and turn his palms up in the orans posture while praying. And if we didn’t pull out the prayer booklet, he’d go and fish it out of the kitchen drawer for us and demand it.
When we’d promised to raise and form our kid in a life of Christ at his baptism, we had no idea that he’d also be leading and forming us.
Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or more are gathered in his name, he’d also be present. Most of us know this “two or more” bit well, but how often do we pray with others outside of Mass? The experience of praying at home with my family has transformed me—and, I dare say, my husband and son as well. We still stumble through some extemporaneous prayers, but most often we turn to the Liturgy of the Hours. The words of these prayers are articulate and beautiful, their shape ancient. Personally, these prayers give sound and structure to the longings of my soul. This form of prayer simply resonates with me.
The eight hours follow the Benedictine Liturgy of the Hours, a pattern that allows for eight opportunities to rest and pray during the day. Each hour has a name that dates back to early Christian monastic history. Families interested in trying this form of prayer shouldn’t feel obligated to stick to the hour designated for a particular time of day, though that’s certainly an option and holy pursuit! They are there merely as starting points.
Here are some suggestions for how your family might pray the daily office:
• Pray lauds (early morning prayer) at breakfast before the family disperses and goes their separate ways for the day. Lauds is particularly short and sweet and therefore a good choice when time is limited.
• End the day with evening prayer before everyone heads to bed. It makes an excellent bookend to a day begun with lauds. These hours remind us how each day of life is a holy gift.
• When time allows, spend a few minutes in quiet meditation. Pause for a moment or two to allow thoughts and ideas to creep into consciousness, then ask family members to share what is in their hearts.
• Use the form that you most like (or mix and match) every day to teach a particular prayer (such as the Lord’s Prayer) to children. When they ask the tough questions, ponder them and reply with honesty. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. Personally, I believe there’s value in letting children see that adults don’t have all the answers. Mystery is at the heart of our faith. Not knowing is not the same as not wanting to know. Rather, we can be stirred to awe and marvel at the incredible love and creative power of God.
• Practice having older children lead the prayers when you’re gathered together. Let them choose the office, despite the time of day. Have them ask each member of the family to respond to the meditation questions.
• When you cannot sleep or find yourself awake at an absurdly late or early hour, pray the office of vigil and enjoy the stillness of this time of day.
The most important thing to remember is that you should not get too caught up in a bunch of shoulds. Rather, as a wise spiritual director once told me, consider the coulds. Do not fret if you are unable to pray every day. Or if the only time to pray that works for you is in the car while transporting kids from school to soccer practice. These are all holy moments when you invite the presence of the Holy Spirit. Rejoice in them.
Portions of this column have been adapted and reprinted with permission from the introduction to a parish prayer booklet on the Liturgy of the Hours compiled by the author.
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 43–44).