Prayer is central to the Christian way of life, just as Jesus always prayed to his Father in Heaven, so he taught his followers to pray. Two statements in the Gospel summarise the entire development of our prayer life: the request of the Apostles “Lord teach us how to pray” and the complaint of Christ “could you not watch one hour with me.” In understanding prayer we must be able to distinguish two things: the obligation to pray and the desire to pray. The desire for prayer is that internal attraction towards prayer. It is not a question of attitude being ‘I ought to pray’ but a question of ‘I want to pray.’ There is a midway stage where people say ‘I want to do what I ought to do’, this is fair and proper but is it insufficient? There has to grow within us a desire for prayer, nostalgia for prayer, a taste for prayer. “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart: it is a simple look turned towards heaven, it is a cry of recognition of love, embracing both trial and jury” St Therese of Lisieux. My own understanding of prayer is a way of communicating, talking to God. It is having a one to one relationship with God. Others see it as “listening for the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (www.Kaldu.org) Nowadays, we are all very busy and our minds are pre-occupied with many things, people experience the difficulties life presents to our prayers.
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Some prayers are spontaneous such as the Hail Mary. There are litanies which are repetitive prayers such as Mother of God – pray for us and there are traditional payers. Prayer is engaging in conversation with God and his Saints and can become as natural as talking to our family and friends. Prayer is central to our lives as Christians; it can and should touch every moment of the day. Catholic prayer must and should be part of your normal life and not something ‘extra’ that you add onto it. “What you practice each day you’ll do for eternity” (www.beginningcatholic.com)
Some people choose to only pray in a formal way, together with others in a church. Many also pray at home, alone in the privacy of their rooms and their own quiet thoughts. Prayers said in the morning will help you to face the challenges of our day and the prayers we say at night help us to review the events of the day and we can beg for God’s forgiveness. In the past morning prayers were said during battles, to help them face the day as they were not sure if they would survive and then said prayers in the evening to say thank you. We can pray before meals, in the car and when trouble disturbs our lives. We can pray when joys lift our minds and we can say thank you to God and we can also pray for others. Just like family and friends, we depend on God for everything so it is in prayer we are able to acknowledge that dependence on Him.
In the Old Testament there are psalms, these are expressions of praise and lamentation, of thanksgiving and petition. Psalms are meant to be sung and a tambourine or harp was used in the past to accompany them. Today, the psalms form the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours which is the official prayer of the church. Psalms are written about everyday emotions, there is a psalm or scripture that represents or shows what we are going through or facing in life. In our weakness we go to God and we pray, just like in the garden, when Jesus was facing his passion, “He went off from them about the distance of a stone’s throw and knelt down and pray. Father, he said, if you will, take this cup of suffering away from me” (Luke 22. 41-44). This showed the humanity and weakness of the three disciples when they fell asleep.
Prayer should never be divorced from life, nor a bolt on to the life of the school but it must underpin all we do and who we are. It is to the extent that we are rooted in prayer, both communal and solitary, that we will be able to discover our mission and have the strength to carry it out. A Catholic education provides children with academic excellence enhanced with traditional Christian values. Catholic schools set out to guide and encourage children to explore God’s creation and to discover something of the creator, so prayer and worship give children the greater understanding of the teachings of Jesus; give them a greater understanding of the life of Jesus; it develops a sense of curiosity; a sense of joy and fun; encourages forgiveness; helps them to come to terms with sorrow and how to engage in symbolic action. As teachers, we model respect for all and on acceptance of each child’s talents, abilities and personal challenges. We create a safe loving environment that encourages children to believe in their capabilities and to work toward their potential.
From birth, children try very hard to communicate so the first and most powerful influence on our children’s prayer life will be our own. Prayer is a gift of God “Gift is a good word to describe prayer because praying is not something we can do of ourselves, we do not know how to pray as we ought, prayer is a gift God must give” (www.cptryon.org/prayer/child) It is our job to help children use this gift and connect faith to life so that prayer informs practice and is integrated into practicalities of our everyday lives. How we pray and the words we use will be the role model that can either liberate or sadly also inhibit the children. We need to help young children entrusted to our care develop and grow in their own understanding of prayer. Even though we are role models for prayer, modelling does not mean we should dominate or talk too much; we must also listen and invite them to participate.
Prayer in the classroom can give children firsthand experience of the different roles of communal prayer. Class assemblies are an ideal method of encouraging children to pray. A bible story is a good beginning, the story is read followed by a class discussion on what the story means for us. The children can try and act out the story in small groups and they can choose the most effective bits from the acting that they would like to include. All children are encouraged to participate in speaking. Children can write their own prayers in relation to the bible story. Some children can use puppets to show the audience the story. Parents and children in the school are invited to watch the assembly; this shows the importance of how the children are part of a bigger family, not just at home but of church and prayer life.
When children pray they:
Give glory to God
Celebrate all that is good
Say thank you for life
Provide opportunities to reflect upon what is meaningful, significant concern for them.
Doing prayers in lots of different creative ways can be fun and has its place in children’s work. We know children flourish best where there are safe boundaries within which they can relax. A safe place allows them the freedom to experiment and express themselves in prayer. Prayer should always be appropriate to the age of the children. To lead children into a habit of prayer is to have a simple focus; this could be a song, music, a lighted candle, a cross. It could be a piece of craft which has come out of the day’s work. A picture is always a great focus, especially a global picture as it reminds the children they are talking with the creator of heaven and earth. It is important to make a sacred place in schools for prayer; it doesn’t have to be a place where we all go together. If there are images these need to be selected carefully, not too many otherwise they could distract the children from their thoughtful time.
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When planning prayer with children we need to keep it short and simple. When they are composing their own prayers they need to know what they are praying about. Prayer creates community – unity between people – unity of purpose. It is important to listen carefully to children’s prayers and to learn from them. It is also crucial to listen to their silences as these are of course also prayers. Like with many things, the simplest way is very often the best way.
There are so many activities we can do in school that will encourage and develop prayer. Daily assemblies, regular visits to the Cathedral, altars in class, singing hymns, prayer books made by the children, these can be sent home so they can share their prayers with families. We could have a prayer box where children, when old enough, write their prayer down and place it in the special box, other children can draw their prayer. A variety of colours of paper can be used to express the moods of prayers. In our school, we are lucky enough to have a prayer garden, the children can tie a ribbon to the tree and take a moment to say a prayer or have some thoughtful time. Our staff meetings begin with a reflection or prayer so it is not just the children who are encouraged to pray in a school environment. Circle times allow all children to participate in prayers, passing a cross or special object around in turn. In school it is vital to teach the children to pray also to saints. Our children need to know who St. Joseph is, what his beliefs were, why is our school called after him. They will realise what an important man he was as over half the schools in our diocese are called St. Joseph. They will learn that he is the protector of the Holy Family and the importance of him.
Children are novices at life in general and find many tasks and demands they do in school full of uncertainty. They are more limited than adults in how much they can attend to and memorise. Prayer develops the spiritual lives of the children but has to be achieved at their pace and understanding. We all need to pray for an increase of faith. When life goes smoothly we do not see a need to pray but when things go wrong we realise the importance of them. Prayer is a very intimate and personal experience. The good habit of prayer that is nurtured and encouraged will help children later on in their adult journey of faith.
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