I can’t say I’m real clear on what prayer is or what it means or how it works. I do believe it makes a difference. Not in any kind of magical thinking, genie-in-a-bottle kind of way. I’ve heard too many prayers at the bedsides of dying people, including my own brother, to believe that prayer is a formula whose correct and thorough recitation triggers supernatural intervention in the course of world events. But I have seen it change the way people act or talk or feel. I’ve seen anger soften, tears flow, anguished frowns turn to smiles, voices lowered or raised, hands and arms joining, all during or after a prayer. A month ago, I prevented a patient from receiving a sedative injection because I prayed for her and her heart rate and blood pressure dropped to safe levels. I knew what I was doing; I have a calm, soft, soothing praying voice, and I was aware of the patient’s faithful belief that prayer is powerful. She and I might have had different beliefs about what makes prayer powerful, but in that moment, it definitely was.
My own prayer life is a little less certain. I rarely pray out loud by myself. Even silently, I don’t compose an inner monologue or speech. Prayer is more about awareness and mindfulness, of creating an inner space of connection with the larger world around me so that I might let myself be reassured of the sanctity of this life and my relationship with others. I suppose “meditation” might be a better word for it, but I can’t let go of the word “prayer.” In my cultural upbringing, that’s the word for it, and as much as it might have evolved from what I was taught in Sunday School, it still feels like an important spiritual practice for feeling grounded in my relationships: to my loved ones, to my self, to the larger community of humanity, to this creation I’m lucky enough to live in.
So of course I’ve tried to teach my child to pray. I’m not the only one, of course; she goes to church and Sunday School. Her preschool is run by a church, so she gets it during the week, too. She knows how to say “the blessing” before each meal. The common one, sung to “Frere Jacques,” goes:
God our Father, God our Father
Once again, once again
Thank you for our blessings, thank you for our blessings
It’s simple, easy to remember, and mostly I like the simple message. (Mostly; I have my typical liberal resistance to male imagery of the divine, but that is how Jesus prayed, and I still have some years to sneak in feminine imagery.) Some nights if she’s really hungry, she just prays, “Dear God, thank you for this food, amen.” Which is still pretty great.
We’ve also taught her to say prayers before bedtime. Not every night; bedtime is sometimes a delicate dance, and I am not going to disrupt it by praying. (Note to Jesus: Sorry, but that’s how it is. If you have a problem with it, then make my daughter fall asleep faster.) When we say prayers at bedtime, she usually speaks only thanks. “Dear God, thank you for Grammy and Pappy and Grandmom and Granddad and all the people in this city. Amen.”
I love that my child’s first prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. She hasn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how lovely her life really is, which is why I’m touched to hear her spontaneously give thanks for things like her new doll or butterflies and flowers. I’m thankful her life is good enough that she has the luxury to pick and choose so many things to give thanks for.
I want her prayers to start incorporating an awareness beyond her own good life to others who might not have it as good. She’s already starting to gain some sense that other people have it harder than she does, and it seems a good time to introduce prayer into this awareness. So my new practice with her is to have her say a prayer anytime an ambulance or fire truck races past us on the road.
“Someone is sick or hurt,” I say.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“I don’t know, but that fire truck / ambulance is rushing off to help them. Do you want to say a prayer for them?”
The first few times, of course, I did it for her, to model what it sounds like. Only a sentence or two, to ask God to help whoever is hurt. Just enough for her to practice thinking of other people in her prayers.
This past week, we had the luck of seeing the person we prayed for. A fire truck raced past, followed by an ambulance.
“Uh oh,” my daughter said from the backseat. “Someone is hurt.”
“Sounds like it. Should we pray for that person?”
“Dear God,” she said, “please go be with the person who needs help and make them feel better. Amen.”
Proud and touched, I said, “That was a very good prayer.”
“I know,” she said, nonchalant. “I’m a very good pray-er-upper.”
Of course this made me laugh at loud. Then we drove past the ambulance, which had stopped on the sidewalk. Apparently a runner had fallen or collapsed; he was sitting in the ambulance talking with the EMS tech, and the fire truck was driving away with its sirens off. “Look honey, that’s who you prayed for.”
“Who is he? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like they’re taking care of him. Maybe he fell.”
A few moments of silence before she said, “I’m glad they’re taking care of him.”
To be glad that a stranger is getting care is prayer to me. If my five-year-old child can experience that, can allow herself to be concerned with another person’s suffering for a few moments, then she is indeed a good pray-er-upper. I hope I can continue to teach and learn alongside her the joys of connection and empathy, praying up her own spirit as we go. If prayer is about connection to those around us, I am grateful for the joy that comes in praying with my child.