What do slides, cashews, grandparents, undies, and the color yellow have in common? Well, besides their contributions to the good life, they’re all regularly featured in my daughter’s nighttime prayers.
Esther just turned 2, and to say that it brings my director-of-faith-formation heart joy to hear her request “prayers please” does not do justice to the emotional overwhelm I experience in the moment when she clasps her chubby hands. In addition to providing a glimpse into the wonderland of my toddler’s mind and assuring me that I’m not completely failing as a parent, praying with Esther has taught me important lessons about prayer.
Our evening ritual looks like this: Once teeth are brushed, books are read, and Esther is cozily nestled between her favorite doll and bear, we offer a lengthy litany that leaves no stone unturned. We bless and give thanks for the activities of the day, for her favorite toys, and for all the people—every last one, by name—whom she knows. I silently give thanks, as the prayer inches along, that the pandemic has limited her social circle. The prayer ends when she squeezes her eyes shut and whispers an earnest “Ayyyyyeee-men.”
A nap time or bedtime has not occurred since Esther spoke her first words without the offering of prayers. This, I will tell you, has given me the longest prayer streak of my life.
While my spiritual practice has ebbed and flowed over the years, one consistent struggle I face is the propensity to avoid prayer when I’m not “in the mood.” If enough days go by in which the daily readings leave me uninspired, and time in silence proves anxiety-producing instead of refreshing, I’m quick to take a break from scheduled prayer time. Time in nature is a prayer, I tell myself. God’s presence is as active in my friends as it is in the Bible, I say.
These things may be true, and I believe them to be. Yet I also know that, for me at least, spending consistent and concentrated moments in meditation, reflection, and silence nourishes my faith life in a steady, if imperceptible in the moment, kind of way, a way that cannot be replaced with occasional traipses through the woods and bimonthly gatherings with friends.
This, I will tell you, has given me the longest prayer streak of my life.
Esther keeps me in the habit of showing up and saying prayers regularly, whether I’m “feeling it” or not. The psychologist William James once observed that action and feeling go together and that “by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling.” I think that this same idea applies to prayer. By keeping me engaged in the ritual action of giving thanks and asking for blessing, Esther keeps me open to the movement of God within my life.
Esther also helps me recognize the value of praying for others, which, admittedly, is something I never used to do. Whereas many people of faith send sympathy notes and get-well-soon cards with promises of prayers, I’m much more inclined to tell my grieving, ill, or otherwise struggling friends that I’m holding them in my heart. Because, well, that’s the truth. My hesitation to pray for others—and for myself, for that matter—comes from my understanding of how God operates in a suffering world, or, in a word, theodicy. Philosophers, theologians, and seekers through the ages have wondered why God allows suffering and evil to happen.
In his 1981 classic on the topic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken Books), Rabbi Harold Kushner proposes that it is not in God’s power to prevent suffering. While some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a God who is not omnipotent, I’m with Kushner: It makes more sense to me that an infinitely loving and merciful God cannot prevent evil than that God chooses not to. Truthfully, I don’t think we are meant to understand the workings of God, so I don’t spend a lot of my mental, emotional, and spiritual energy trying to comprehend God’s ways. But I hold the philosophy that God cannot prevent suffering strongly enough that it stops me from bothering to pray for others.
Rather, it used to stop me. Since I began praying with Esther, I pray for friends and family members regularly. This has caused me to change my mind about the value of such a practice, even though my views on theodicy remain the same. Praying for my husband, siblings, parents, friends, and in-laws may not reap transcendent results, but it changes me. Thinking of the people who bring joy and meaning to our days kindles a flame in my innermost being. By regularly remembering Esther’s and my nearest and dearest, I’m more likely to reach out to them, send a birthday card, make a phone call, or even just text “I’m thinking of you.” Praying for others increases the love I feel and the love I give.
Regardless of what God does with my prayers, a lot of good comes from saying them.
Regardless of what God does with my prayers, a lot of good comes from saying them, from simply naming the people whom I hold in the tabernacle of my heart. This brings me to perhaps the most important lesson that Esther has taught me through her bedtime ritual: Prayers don’t have to be intricate, long, or deep. They can be as uncomplicated as the uttering of a single word.
While I’ve always known this on an intellectual level—in fact, I built an entire retreat around Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow (Riverhead Books), the premise of which is that these three short words are the three essential prayers—I’ve let the feeling of being mentally fried, the absence of a long chunk of time, and the desire to avoid any sort of deep thinking stop me from praying on many occasions. Esther, with her buoyant enthusiasm and limited vocabulary, guides me out of that limited way of thinking and doing. Her prayers are as simple as you’d expect a 2-year-old’s to be, and I have no doubt that they are pleasing to God and efficacious in nourishing her faith.
There will be a time when Esther stops praying for undies and I’m no longer privy to the inner workings of her soul, but I hope to never forget these lessons that she—full of jubilance, whimsy, and the breath of God—has taught me: Do it regularly, pray for others, and simple is fine. Ayyyyeee-men!
This article also appears in the May 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 5, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.