by Jerry Windley-Daoust
Raising kids who grow into adults who know how to pray (and make it a habit) means doing more than teaching them to memorize their prayers, even if it’s valuable for them to have a ready-made prayer book in their heads. But the lives and words of the saints and other spiritual giants teach us that there is more to a vibrant relationship with God than reciting a blessing before meals, or kicking out a list of prayer intentions before bedtime. These holy men and women practiced meditative and contemplative prayer, too.
Meditation and contemplation probably saved St. Patrick’s life during the years he was enslaved as a young man in Ireland. St. Theresa of Avila famously said that “prayer is nothing more than spending a long time alone with the one I know loves me”—and counseled her sisters to take a break from praying, now and then, even though it was hard to do so. St. Verdania spent more than forty years enclosed in a cell attached to an oratory, and not only did she not go crazy, she actually became famous for her holiness and wisdom. And the Desert Fathers offer ample witness that contemplative prayer is a vast, life-giving ocean that a whole lifetime cannot exhaust.
The question is, how do you teach restless, always-moving kids to slow down long enough to experience the fruits of contemplative prayer?
The answer seems to be “one step at a time.”
First, let’s address the misconception that kids lack the maturity for meditative and contemplative prayer. Yes, it is possible to teach kids contemplative prayer; practitioners of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd know this, as does the Catholic Education Diocese of Townsville, Australia, which sponsors the meditation website for children, Christian Meditation for Children and Young People. And I’ve seen my own (older) kids spend ten or more minutes in silent prayer that they report as being fruitful.
But ten minutes of silent prayer is not necessarily your starting point. Instead, focus on building up to that with activities that build habits of silence, attentiveness, interiority, and, of course, a relationship with “the one I know loves me.”
Practicing thirty seconds of silence before mealtime and family prayers is a good start, but another good practice is to simply take your kids—especially the more active ones—on a quiet walk. Walking gives them permission to move their bodies, which nature has programmed to exercise as much as possible to help them grow; the rhythmic movement of walking might even help them enter a more contemplative state. Call it your “God walk”—an opportunity to look and listen for God, whose presence bathes the world, as Blessed Margaret Ebner (another great contemplative) observed.
Here are some practical tips to make this activity work:
- Choose a location that is relatively quiet and free of human distractions (e.g., friends and neighbor and passersby who want to chat). A natural setting is ideal, but God can be found everywhere.
- Announce that you’re going on a “quiet walk” or a “God walk” in order to spend some time with God. You might even talk about “spying on God” in the world around you.
- If you have very young or very chatty kids, focus on modeling this quiet time: “Mom/Dad is being quiet to listen for God, so we’re not talking right now. Can you listen for God in your heart, too?” Then, let go of the outcome (i.e., no matter how noisy your kids are, you stay quiet and prayerful). If your young children see you model the practice of contemplation, it’s more than likely you’ll find them imitating you before long.
- Time the length of your quiet walk to the age and maturity of your kids. You might start with just five or ten minutes and work your way up from there.
- Older kids may complain of not being able to concentrate on prayer. Remind them that their intention and desire to pray is a sort of prayer in itself, one that God will respond to.
- Older children might want to begin by meditating on a single prayer or Scripture to help focus their thoughts, then “slide” into contemplation toward the end of their walk.
- At the end of your walk, take some time to process the experience. You can ask younger kids where they “found” God during the walk, or how they “heard” God in their hearts; their answers may not make much sense. That’s okay—share your own experience as a way of teaching them what to watch and listen for. You can ask older kids to simply describe their experiece.
Circling back around to the issue of mental distractions during meditative or contemplative prayer, let your kids know that if their mind is overly “chatty,” it might be that they haven’t been getting enough time away from activities and media. Their brains need “down time” for processing their experiences, and will take advantage of whatever space we provide. It may be the case that they need to let their minds “clear out” all their concerns and distractions in order to focus more directly on the presence of God. Making their prayer problems explicit to the Holy Spirit can help, too: “Holy Spirit, I’m so distracted! Help me focus on your presence.”
Theresa of Avila and Abbe Moses didn’t become spiritual masters overnight. They got there step by step—kind of like a quiet walk.