Praying in the Presence of Children

If we have forgotten how to pray, children can teach us

This article appeared in the October 2001 issue of Celebration, an ecumenical worship resource (p.442-443).

by Ann Naffziger

I was reminded last month of two beautiful forms of prayer that I began to practice five years ago but which I have not had the opportunity to use recently. I used to pray with these two particular forms when I lived in Portland, Ore., but then I moved away from my friends to attend graduate school last year. As it happens, these modes of prayer work best in the presence of infants or small children, and unfortunately there are not many children on our campus. But when I went back to Oregon to visit recently, I was once again surrounded by friends whose young children became my prayer helps.

In particular, my friends Jim and Celeste have three daughters with whom I am especially close. In fact, I like to believe that I have the honor of being one of the favored adults in their lives, after their parents, whom they adore. How do I know that I am so fortunate? I know because of the way that the girls call out to me in greeting whenever we happily meet. Indeed, their joy at seeing me never ceases to make me feel like I am the most loved person in all the world and this is the beginning of the prayer.

For example, the last time I visited their house, all three girls were playing in the dining room when I walked into the kitchen. Olivia, the youngest at 4 years old, caught sight of me first. "Ann, Ann, Ann!" she shouted joyfully, leaping off of her chair and running to hug me at my knees. Right behind her came 5-year-old Faith. “Ann, Ann, Ann!” she exclaimed excitedly, before grabbing me around the thighs, including Olivia in her hug. Then came Naomi, Faith's senior by 3 years. “Ann, Ann, Ann!” she cried, mimicking her sisters and rushing to hug them, and me, at waist level. It was a scene of tremendous joy for me, and even now recalling their voices makes for good prayer because I think this must be how God calls my name—with such glee!

I have a similar memory from the first time I came back for a visit three months after I had said my heart-wrenching goodbye to the girls when I moved out of town. I was supposed to see them again at the Sunday Mass at my former parish, but I arrived a few minutes after Mass had already started, missing the chance to visit with them beforehand. The girls are keenly observant though, (like a parent awaiting a prodigal child's return?) and when I slipped into the back of the church during the first reading Naomi spotted me. The next moment she and her sisters alerted the entire congregation to my presence with their uncontained excitement. Naomi led them in a sing-song “AAAANNN!” Her voice started high and slid down a few notes in a two syllable call that Faith and Olivia then echoed perfectly. Heads turned and the lector paused while many looked to see our happy reunion. I often imagine that Jesus was delighting in such a chorus of greetings (“JEEE-SUS!”) before the disciples tried to shush the children and shoo them away for making such a ruckus.

How does this translate into prayer, then? Well, I consider it my "being called by name" prayer. Just as I love the idea of Jesus fondly calling me by the affectionate nicknames I have been tagged with through the years, (Anna Banana de Indiana, for one) I turn to my memories of the girls calling me by my name when I am given to feeling lonely or unnoticed or unloved. “AAA-NNN” or “Ann! Ann! Ann!” When I imagine God greeting me thus I am certain that my name is the name of one who is greatly beloved.

I was reminded of the second form of prayer I used to pray regularly when Faith and Olivia spent the night with me during my last visit to Portland. After we made peanut butter chocolate bars, licked the bowl, the beaters, and our fingers, cowered from the big and scary dog outside, read a bedtime story and got them tucked in for the night, I left them in the semi-darkness of my room so that I could finish cleaning up the kitchen. It was probably an hour later when I slipped into my darkened bedroom and was arrested by the beauty of the two little girls sleeping in my bed. Looking down at them I remembered how I used to sing and pray over them when I rocked them to sleep as babies.

I remember clearly the particular night when big sister Naomi invited me into this new form of prayer. She was probably 5 years old at the time and I was babysitting for the three of them at their farmhouse. We had just finished saying our prayers, which consisted of “pray-fors,” (as in “I want to pray for...”) and thank yous, (“I want to thank God for...”) when Naomi asked me to lay down in the bed with her until she fell asleep. By then Olivia was asleep in her crib and Faith, too, was already dozing. Naomi drifted off soon after, but I didn't get up. I couldn't. I thought my heart would burst with my love for them so I stayed and prayed for them and blessed them silently, hoping they would know they were deeply loved, not just by me, but by their parents and by God.

And that is when the revelation came. Just as I loved these girls until I thought my heart would explode, so God loves me. Just as I blessed them, so God blesses me. Just as I yearned for them to know I cherished them and believed them bright and beautiful, so God yearns to communicate the same to me.

If prayer is sitting contentedly in the presence of One you love, then I wanted to pray like that again on this night five years later with Faith and Olivia sleeping in my bed. So I sat on the bottom of the bed and prayed in their presence. Their arms were comfortably intertwined and Olivia's left leg hung over the side of the bed. Her foot protruded from the cover, 10 perfect toes begging kisses. Quietly I sang again the love songs I sang to them as infants, imagining that Mary, too, must have had nights of singing to Jesus while admiring his sleeping self. And all the while, I knew that God was looking on me and singing to me as well.

Ann Naffziger is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in America magazine, Portland magazine, the Oregonian and the Catholic Sentinel, the archdiocesan paper for Portland, Ore.