We spent the third week of Great and Holy Lent (when I started to write this post!) contemplating the life and legacy of St. Gregory of Palamas and the beauty and simplicity of the Jesus prayer. How can we bring such a profound and yet simple practice to our children? Our children, for the most part, are so on the go – from the moment their eyes pop open in the morning till the moment they surrender to sleep at night. Often at night just as I am putting the baby to sleep I can hear the older three racing up and down the hall, laughing and hollering at some new game they have just created. Joyous! But a seemingly stark contrast to the inward prayer of St. Gregory – hesychasm.
We know children are different than adults. They have a different energy level, they are engaged by different things generally and often bored by things that interest us. Yet the Orthodox Church sees children as full participants in the mysteries of the church, not just “when they get older” but now (a future post for more on this to come!) So how can we help our children to begin the vital process of connection with the prayer of the heart?
Just get started!
So often I am tempted to feel like I need to do it right or not do it at all. I need to attend all the extra services or I give up entirely. I need to make prayer time perfect – everyone involved and paying attention or I have failed. Or I wait until it’s the right time for everyone to do a lesson I have planned and then miss the opportunity entirely. I think we all suffer a bit from this. So with the Jesus prayer it has come up enough in the past years that my older two (5 and 7) are aware of it, but it hasn’t been a part of their daily lives and prayers.
Using our voice to plant the seeds
Then one evening my daughter woke up with a nightmare and as I tucked her back into bed and cuddled in beside her I simply began to repeat the Jesus prayer quietly in her ear over and over until she fell asleep. I realized that is what I do to try and fall back asleep and perhaps my voice could plant this seed of prayer in her mind. After all my children have hundreds of song lyrics memorized and stored in their subconscious – as demonstrated by the fact that my 3 year old will often sing in his sleep. So why can’t the words and rhythm of the Jesus prayer be the same?
This simple practice has born beautiful fruit already – a week or two later when the same thing happened in the night as we were visiting grandparents I started to whisper the prayer again and my daughter looked at me and smiled. “I was just saying that myself mama!” What a blessing!
Adding it to our Prayer Rule
Also we now start our evening prayers with saying the Jesus Prayer 20 times. Holding up ten fingers and then counting down and up can be a nice visual especially for the littles – this small number of repetitions seems to have an amazing way of getting the rhythm of prayer already in their heads and hearts.
Bringing the Body Into the Prayer
A vital tool for us as adults is the prayer rope and there are many prayer ropes for children (or they can use ours). Keeping them in your bag for church or in their beds for prayer before sleep can get them used to bringing their body into prayer too. You could have them make their own prayer ropes with beads and pipe cleaner (like this) or string or even rubber bands. Any repetitive movement can bring the body into the prayer. Be creative – encourage them to say it while braiding a friendship bracelet, doing cross stitch, playing (respectfully) toss with a ball together or alone, swinging. If the prayer is to one day settle into our minds and then perhaps to our hearts we need to accustom ourselves to using the prayer in motion. And motion is a state that children feel very comfortable in already so we can take advantage of that.
Accustoming them to Silence
From their constant state of motion we can also continue to train our children in cultivating pockets of stillness and silence. A few years ago I wrote a post on The Importance of Silence – which I myself need to revisit and re-implement in my home! Any way that we can help our children to be more and more comfortable and soothed in silence will help them in church, in prayer and in tuning into God’s presence in their lives.
All the Holy Fathers cry out that the most important thing in the life of every Christian is prayer.
Do you want to put your life in order? Pray.
Do you want to be saved? Pray.
All prayers are good and holy, but noetic prayer is the queen of them. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
From this little but all-powerful prayer, the Holy Fathers were set in motion and became shining stars of the church.
Say this little prayer unceasingly as much as you can, day and night, and it will teach you that which you desire, that which you do not know.
Get going with this little prayer!
– Saint Ephraim of Katounakia
May our every effort be blessed as we continue to try and shepherd our little flocks towards Christ!
With love in Christ,