I have an alarm that rings on my phone every night at 8:00 pm. It’s labeled “Family Prayer Time,” and when it goes off my goal is to gather whatever family members happen to be home so we can pray together for a few moments before heading to bed.
It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes I’m out when the alarm rings — at a work dinner, a child’s basketball game, or a church event. Other times, the alarm interrupts important conversations, our family dinnertime, or a movie we’re watching.
Nonetheless, we try. Prayer, I have learned over the years, is not something that just happens. A regular prayer life takes consistent effort, planning ahead, and yes, even setting alarms sometimes. Instilling a habit of daily prayer in ourselves is challenging enough, but encouraging it in our children is harder still.
I was blessed to be raised by parents who taught me the importance of daily prayer, beginning when I was very young. My father prayed the rosary daily and invited us to join him, and my mother taught me a simple formula for bedtime prayer that I still use with my kids today:
“Thank you, God, for my happy day. Take care of me tonight. I’m sorry if I did something wrong today. God bless me and God bless my whole family. Take us all to heaven one day. I love you, Jesus. I love you, Mary. Please teach me to love you more. Amen.”
It’s very basic, but it has all the essentials, and some days it’s all we manage to pray together before going to bed.
My goal in teaching my children to pray, however, is not to encourage them to recite a list of memorized words before bed each night. Memorized prayers and bedtime habits are a great starting place, but true prayer is about building a real relationship with God. That takes more than reciting lines.
I didn’t always understand this. When I was younger, I thought I had an active prayer life. I did, in fact, do things like attend Mass and pray the rosary on a regular basis. I recited a morning offering each day, and grace before meals. I did pray, every day.
I now know, however, that I wasn’t really praying at all back then. Truth be told, I was reciting lines and acting out a part. It took a moment of crisis for me to realize this.
After about four years of marriage, our third child was diagnosed with a life-threatening, incurable illness. This was a shock to my husband and me in many ways, but most significantly for me was the way it affected me spiritually.
Shortly after we received the news, I went to church, knelt before the crucifix, and was alarmed to find that that no words would come. This was unusual; I always had words. I could always pray. But now, as I found myself reeling beneath the weight of a heavy and unexpected cross, I felt so kicked in the teeth by God that I found I could not bring myself to pray a single word.
I had to admit where I was. Ground zero. At the starting place. Just beginning to understand what it meant to connect with God in any meaningful way.
And it was there, inside of that hardship, inside of that pain and disillusionment that a real relationship with God began to take root.
I had to admit that instead of a relationship with God, I had a deal with God, one in which I did all the “right” things, and He in turn protected me from any serious trial. When God “broke” our deal, the ugly reality of my faltering faith was laid bare. I needed to acknowledge that when I prayed “Thy will be done,” I had really meant “as long as it’s my will too.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton once said, “We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives – that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him.”
Up until that point of trial, my prayer was relegated to certain times and places. I limited my relationship with God, in my schedule and in my heart. But praying without ceasing? Turning to God in every moment, every occurrence of my life? This was a new idea, and one I was just beginning to understand.
I like to reflect on the fact that Jesus is fully God and fully man. He took on that fully human part not for his own sake, but for ours. God became man because he loved us so much he wanted to be sure to connect with us on a human level, in a way that we could readily understand.
God wants from us everything we want in our close personal relationships. When we love our husbands, our kids, our parents, our friends, we don’t want them to reciprocate with formality and limitations. We don’t want a “once in a while” or “now and then” kind of connection. We want to be with them in all things; we want to share our hearts and minds and lives with them in meaningful ways, and we want them do the same with us.
This is exactly what God wants from each one of us. Engaging in formal prayers out of a sense of obligation or duty is a fine place to start, but let’s not be content there. God wants more. He wants all of us. He wants us to turn to him in everything we do, to connect with Him even in the smallest details of our day, and to give him every bit of ourselves. God loves us so much that he wants us to pray without ceasing. As St. Elizabeth Ann reminds us, He wants us to lift our hearts to him. Always. That takes intention – and practice.
Lent is a perfect time to admit where we are, even if it’s very far from “praying without ceasing.” God sees us and loves us. We can start right there and make the decision to grow in our relationship with Him, giving Him all of ourselves, the way He gave himself to us.
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.