The first time my boys and I kneeled at the bottom bunk to say evening prayers was a lesson in awkwardness. First off, it became very clear that my old knees were in no condition to bear my weight on the hardwood floor. So, there was pain. Secondly, my boys were deeply confused as to what, exactly, we were doing on our knees in their darkened room, surrounded by the mess and detritus of their lives.
“It’s just a prayer, like we say in church,” I told them. “We’re going to ask God to bless people and thank him for the day.”
My seven-year-old immediately thought of his grandmother. “I’m going to ask for God to bless Bomba,” he said.
The 5-year-old looked at me with his eyes wide. “Bomba’s dead?” he asked in a concerned hush.
“No, she not dead,” I replied.
Clearly, as far as prayer at home was concerned, we were out of practice. My family and I are Catholics. We’re actually in pretty good standing in our parish. We go to mass about two times a month, on average, and our boys follow the other kids to the children’s liturgy of the word. We talk about God and Jesus at home, but we don’t often pray together. Unless we hear someone is struggling or has lost a loved one, which is probably why the 5-year-old was concerned.
But I was kneeling at the side of my boy’s bed for a specific reason. I understood from the more prayerful moments of my own past that prayer can act as meditation. Prayer can allow a person to focus on the positive and recognize those they love. Prayer helps acknowledge humility.
I’d tried to meditate with my boys before. It worked well for the seven-year-old. I was curious, then, what would happen with a week of regular prayer. Would my boys become more joyful? Would they have more gratitude? I was curious.
After assuring my boys that their grandmother was fine, I started the prayer myself. I made the sign of the cross, clasped my hands together and said, “Lord, thank you for my wonderful family and the blessing of my wife and amazing boys. Thank you for this beautiful day.”
I turned to the seven-year-old, “Your turn.”
“Bless Bomba,” he said brusquely, thinking first of the Pokemon.
I turned to the 5-year-old, who refused to bless anyone. And because I could not make him pray, I said “amen,” crossed myself again, groaned as I pulled myself off my knees and told them goodnight.
The next night didn’t produce much more. The older boy added “momma” to his blessings, parroted quickly by his 5-year-old brother. It was progress, but still a bit disheartening. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. Somehow, maybe I thought they’d be moved by the spirit and recite a litany of things they were grateful for, each in their sweet little voice. But they were more interested in getting in bed to read a bit more before sleep.
By the third night, I asked to think of a few more things they were grateful for. They added: television shows, me (finally), and pokemon. Things were moving in the right direction, at least. And, I suppose it’s not really surprising that a seven-year-old would thank God for Pokemon. Still, I wasn’t seeing the humility, gratitude and meditative peace I’d been hoping for.
On the morning of the fourth day, as I sat in front of my computer, I heard a small song from the bathroom across the hall from my office. “Go! Tell it on the mountain! Up over there! Go! Tell it on the mountain! That Jesus Christ is born.”
From our bedroom, my wife chimed in with a sing-songy, “Hallelujah!”
My 5-year-old was sitting on the toilet, feet dangling as he pooped. And he’d turned the moment into a Baptist tent revival. He sang it again. “Go! Tell it on the mountain …” and my wife responded with another “Hallelujah!” I went on that way until his hands were washed. Was this the power of prayer I’d been waiting to see? Probably not. That night both boys melted down before bed. There were no prayers aside from my own, for God to help me not lose my everloving shit.
The next night, at the end of our experiment, I asked for a prayer at the dinner table to make up for the night before. My seven-year-old raised his hands. “I’ll do it,” he said.
We made the sign of the cross.
“Thank you for the hard ground we walk on and for all the food that grows. Thank you for all of the pretty trees and for my family. And thank you for a beautiful day,” he said.
We crossed ourselves again and I looked over at my wife with a raised eyebrow. It was honestly the best, most simple and honest prayer of thanks I’d ever heard. Perhaps the practice had actually paid off.
But, so what? What good was it actually doing? I’d made my kids pray. They’d been grudging up to the blessing at family dinner. But was it actually doing anything? Was the prayer changing them in any way? I started writing the cynical conclusion of the experiment in my head. Then, unprompted, the seven-year-old looked at my wife and said, “Thank you, momma, for making us dinner.”
“Yeah, thank you, momma,” the five-year-old piped in.
“Well thank your poppa too. He worked to buy all this food,” she said.
“Thank you poppa for working,” the five-year-old said.
It was the first time either kid had ever offered genuine thanks for the meal. Maybe for anything. But was it the prayer? If I were truly a man of faith, I’d say yes. But I’m not sure. Perhaps they simply understood, finally, that they should be grateful. And maybe the prayers helped them get there, but I struggle to attribute the change to the divine.
In the end, I may not need to. Perhaps what’s most important is not that we were talking to God, but we were reminding ourselves of all the good that surrounded us. And maybe we don’t need a special time to kneel. Maybe we just need to tell our gratitude from any mountain we find. Hallelujah.