Praying Before Communion with Children

I recently received an email asking me to recommend a communion prayer for children. That got me thinking about a Raising Saints podcast episode on this very subject from 2012.  Then on Sunday I took my kids to church, and as I stood in line with my eight year old and my five year old, and as I struggled to help them focus on the sacrament they were about to receive, I realized that I need to revisit that question, and perhaps offer a new episode with more ideas. Because my old idea just wasn’t working, and now that I think about it, it hasn’t been working for some time. We have been struggling in that communion line. So this episode is a re-mix. It’s the new and improved, updated and re-mastered version of ‘Prayers of Holy Communion’.

My original thought back in 2012 had been that we can teach our children the meaning behind some of our most beautiful pre-communion prayers, many of which use wonderful imagery that young kids can really comprehend. And we can; that’s a good idea. But I was thinking that we could simply remind them of those ideas when it was time for Holy Communion. What I hadn’t considered was that they need more than an image — they need some words that they can memorize and say to themselves as they stand in line. They need to memorize some prayers, just like I do.

We have an abundance of beautiful prayers from our Church Fathers, and I especially love the prayers which prepare us to receive Holy Communion. But the ideas and the syntax are complex and they require an advanced vocabulary; when we read them out loud to young children, they don’t always understand them.  That may be true of a lot of Orthodox prayers — but here’s the thing: I don’t understand all of our prayers right away either.  Even if I think I understand, the odds are that there are people wiser and holier than me who understand much better, who see layers of meaning that I cannot fathom. But if I stop praying these prayers and stick to over-simplified words that I can, with my humble little heart, fully grasp, then I’ll be missing out. It’s by marinating in these wise words, by praying words that I am only beginning to understand, that those words can form my heart. Holy prayers will form my worship, form my conception of Christ, and indeed, they form my own understanding of what exactly it is that I need at this time.  Prayer can be as instructive as it is expressive.

Here’s a good example from orthodoxprayer.org:

Prayer Upon Entering a Church

I will come into Your house in the greatness of Your mercy: and in fear I will worship toward Your holy temple. Lead me, O Lord, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; make Your way straight before me, that with a clear mind I may glorify You forever, One Divine Power worshiped in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m walking into the church, coming from the busy world outside into this different space.  Maybe I’ve been hurrying so that I won’t be late, or more likely, I’ve been rushing my children and tracking several needs at once — coats and shoes, hairbands and brushed teeth, papers for Sunday School, thinking of grocery lists and other mundane necessities — and my mind is in many places at once.  This prayer takes my mind and firmly places it in the Church I’m entering.  As I whisper the words — in fear I will worship toward Your holy temple. Lead me, O Lord — I call my mind’s attention to the very special, very holy place I am daring to enter. I call my brain to worship. The words form my mind into something fit for church, clearing my mind and moving it into position to receive God’s grace and His mercy.

Another great example of a prayer that forms our hearts is one of my favorites from the days when my youngest was in the hospital.  I found it on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website, and it formed the way I would think about her surgery:

Prayer before an Operation

O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Who did patiently endure the scourging and wounding of Your most holy Body, that You might save the souls and bodies of Your people, look graciously, we beseech You, upon the suffering body of this Your servant (Name) and give him (her) strength to endure patiently whatsoever You shall see fit to lay upon him (her). Bless the means employed for the working out of his (her) cure, granting that he (she) may so endure his (her) sufferings in the flesh that the wounding of his (her) body may be to avail for the correcting and salvation of his (her) soul, for Yours it is to show mercy and to save, O Christ our God; and to You do we send up Glory, as to Your Eternal Father and Your All‑Holy, Good and Life‑creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

When we sit in the waiting room, anxiously awaiting our loved one’s safe return from the operating room, this prayer reminds us that Christ endured the scourging and wounding of His precious Body, that He has gone through all of this suffering first.  We are not alone; He has endured this, and He endures it now with us. Christ was patient when His Body was torn apart without good reason; we must be patient when our bodies are cut open. Just as Christ suffered to save us, we pray that these sufferings will save us. We don’t begin praying with these thoughts; more often than not, we pick up the prayerbook full of worry and doubt and anxiety, but the words of  this prayer move us to reassurance and to the knowledge that the health of our soul is more important than the condition of our body. This prayer re-orients us, moving us to repentance and acceptance.

Prayers are instructive; they lead us into the most useful way of thinking about our situation.  If they were simply expressing thoughts we already had, they couldn’t move us to better places.  It’s a blessing to pray a prayer that stretches us and forms us into Saints.

So when I ask myself how to offer my young ones a prayer that will be meaningful and will move them into the right space for Holy Communion, I need to be careful. If we over-simplify, then we’ve done them a disservice and offered a prayer that does not instruct.

Certain of the Prayers Before Receiving Holy Communion offer powerful visual images that are perfect for kids. Consider this image, offered in one pre-communion prayer by St. John Chrysostom:

O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that You should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and You have no fitting place in me to lay Your head. But as from the heights of Your glory You did humble Yourself, so now bear me in my humility; as You did deign to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body. As You did not refrain from entering into the house of Simon the leper, or shrink from eating there with sinners, so also vouchsafe to enter the house of my poor soul, all leprous and full of sin.

What a wonderful image — to see our soul as a habitation for our Lord!  Our children may not understand these words on their own, but if we explain what a ‘habitation’ is and what St. John Chrysostom means, we can help them to envision a little house or a temple in their hearts. Every child might picture it differently. Perhaps it’s a small church, or a dusty little cottage; it may look like their own home or like something they’ve seen in a fairy tale. We might invite them to draw their houses, which are cleaned up whenever we pray or attend church, but which the cobwebs and dust take over when we forget about God. None of us is perfect, so the little houses in our souls may get dirty and dusty and dark. Maybe the windows are broken or smeared with dirt; maybe the light cannot even come in. But God is always nearby to help us clean them back up, the Church is there with sacraments and structures to help us get those little homes back into shape.

We can first explain the prayer to our children, teaching them that when we receive Holy Communion, we are truly receiving the Lord, inviting him to come and abide in us. How wonderful to ask whether we have a fitting home for Him in our hearts!  Then we can pray this prayer the night before liturgy with our kids, and teach them to say it in the Communion line.  Without changing the words themselves, we can teach what they mean:  I don’t have a beautiful palace for you, Lord, but I know that you were born in a manger. I know that even though You are God, You became a person like me and You were born in a manger, in the dust with the animals. Lord, I ask you, even though I am not worthy, even though my heart is not a shining palace, please come and live inside me, and help me to clean up this little house inside me and to make it shine with Your light — for with Christ inside, my heart cannot help but shine brightly.

Sunday School teachers might consider offering a lesson on this prayer, and sending it home with the children.

Another wonderful image of Holy Communion is that of the heavenly banquet.  Our Lord lays out this banquet for all of us, and when we come to the chalice, we are coming to the banquet with all of the saints.

One communion prayer reads,

How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.

This is another wonderful image to unpack with your kids. You might remind them of some Bible stories they already know — if they are familiar with the Prodigal Son, for whom the Father threw a grand banquet, or with Christ’s parable of the man who threw a wedding feast but all of his invited guests made excuses for why they could not come.  This is a frequent image in the gospels, as Jesus often refers to Our Father as hosting a great heavenly banquet.

This prayer, of course, takes us to the banquet but then we realize that we’re not dressed for it. Our baptismal garment has not been kept clean and beautiful; we aren’t in wedding garments.  We humbly acknowledge that the saints at the banquet are appropriately dressed in their love of God and their piety, but we are kind of a mess. We are bound up by our sins, and we deserve to be tossed out of the banquet by the angels, who seem to act as God’s bouncers here. But we won’t be. We ask our Lord to cleanse us and save us, to make us worthy to partake. The angels could throw us out, but they won’t; they welcome us in, and they help us always.

After a conversation about this image of the banquet, our children can say this prayer and mean it, though its words and syntax may be complex.

The Prayers Right Before Holy Communion end with a reference to the banquet, and to two figures who knew Christ but who behaved very differently at the time of His death:  Judas Iscariot and the repentant thief.  Both men knew Christ and recognized that He was the Son of God, but where Judas gave Him a kiss to betray Him, the thief humbly asked Him to remember Him in His Kingdom.  The prayer reads,

Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.

This is a really nice part of the prayer to discuss with our kids. It can become an open conversation on the differences between Judas and the thief, and thus on the various ways in which we should and should not approach our Lord. Most kids can memorize at least this final line, especially if your parish prays this aloud before Holy Communion, as many jurisdictions do.

The key to helping children pray with long, complicated prayers, I think, is the same as helping children experience the divine liturgy or any other service:  we explain the ideas and images, describe what is happening, and then we expose them to the prayers or to the services over and over again. They learn both from our explanations and from their repetitive experience. They marinate in it, like we do.

So how do we prepare our children for Holy Communion? Well, in the evening before the divine liturgy, we should be praying pre-communion prayers together as a family, along with the usual family evening prayers. Some families are praying the entire Canon of Preparation together, but if you’re not, then you might simply add a few prayers to your usual evening family prayer. Open your prayerbook to the Prayers before Holy Communion and pick one, or use one I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps you’ll only add one prayer to the family’s evening prayer rhythm — wherever you are now, consider adding just a little.

While so many of the prayers are very good, each in their own way, if we are looking for just one prayer to pray together and to help the children memorize, we might focus on the prayer intended for those moments immediately before receiving Holy Communion:

Prayers Right Before Communion

I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Therefore, I pray to You, have mercy upon me, and forgive my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. Amen

How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.

Loving Master, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let not these holy Gifts be to my condemnation because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of soul and body and the pledge of the future life and kingdom. It is good for me to cling to God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation.

Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom.

In some jurisdictions, the congregation is saying this prayer together at every divine liturgy; reinforce it and explain it at home if you can. Taking just a little time to point out the beautiful images in these prayers to our children, our godchildren or our Sunday School students will draw their attention to them, and if we can help them memorize even a short couple of lines to pray quietly in the Communion line, it will be a blessing to them.

 

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

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