This article is cross-posted from the Fall 2019 issue of Trinity Magazine.
“For indeed a house is a little Church.” -St. John Chyrsostom
As someone who has a passion for children and families, I’m often asked about how to approach things like family devotions and prayer time. For some families this seems to come naturally and easily. For other households, like mine for example, there’s more of a struggle to try to figure out how in the world to even carve out time for drinking a cup of coffee by ourselves, let alone sitting down together as a family for a time of prayer. In other words, while most of us know that family prayer time is important, we don’t quite know where to begin! The good news is we have the Daily Office so we don’t have to invent anything new. The bad news is there are some cultural challenges that we need to let go of in order to engage in being households of prayer.
One of the challenges that faces us is that we’re bombarded with images of family life that seem so “together” and organized (and spotless!) that we hold an unrealistic sort of Martha Stewart perfectionism as our ideal and forget that the photos in her magazines are staged and that there are a lot of behind-the- scenes people doing set up and clean up. The typical household does not have these invisible house elves! The point of family prayer is never perfection or performance. The point is that family is the forming center. Our togetherness and the fact that most of this formation takes place in our daily routines, is what matters deeply. Giving ourselves permission to be messy and real, rather than polished and perfect can allow for the Lord to work in us and shape us in the midst of the ordinariness of our daily lives. Another obstacle to engaging in family prayer is that it’s easy to set up false comparisons with other households, presuming that their devotional time is calm, cool, and collected — based on assumptions of photos we see posted on social media. What you don’t see in those pictures is that, most of the time, there are cheerios stuck in the cracks of the chairs. At least one kid is sneaking the vegetables they loathe off the plate and into the mouth of the dog who is hiding under the table waiting for any morsel to be dropped. There are probably piles of unfolded laundry off to the side. And you can be certain that during that precious evening prayer time the squiggly kid is hanging upside down off the back of the couch, so she was cropped out of the photo. Don’t compare your family to others!
Let your family be its unique self. Each of our families is grafted into Christ, who is the true Vine. And, each of our households are the distinctive branches. The Scripture for Midday prayer is from John 15:4-5, reminds us to abide and to bear fruit. Our “fruity” families are their own unique blends. There’s a French word, “terroir.” having to do with the environment in which a particular wine is produced. The word also refers to the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by virtue of its unique environment. In the making of the wine, the guiding principle is to use the best ingredients as simply as possible. God has given us these best and distinctive ingredients in our respective households. One of the simplest ways to abide and bear fruit is what the family prayer section of the BCP is about. The writers have given us the best ingredients and have made them as simple and accessible as possible. What a gift to families!
The important thing is to actually use the prayer book and to do so on as consistent a basis as possible. Allow for grace and the inevitable periodic flops that you’ll encounter. Some mornings are going to feel like an utter disaster. The toast got burnt and the dog ate the school lunches you were packing. Some evenings at least one of our cherubs is going to have a complete meltdown. Do family prayer anyway! Wherever two or three gathers, the Lord is there in the midst of our mess. One of the things I love about our Anglican tradition is that we have prayers called “Collects.” Collect comes from the Latin word collecta, which means the gathering of the people together. Day in and day out as we collect at the table, and the threshold of our doorways for our coming in and going forth, these prayers call us to remember that Jesus is our companion in and along the way.
The other cultural challenge that we encounter is the common assumption that Sunday School, is the “real” place for formation. Recent research regarding the typical congregation shows that the average amount of time devoted to actual instruction during Sunday School (whether adults or kids!) is approximately 17 minutes. If we compare 17 minutes out of 10,080 minutes in a week, that’s not even a drop in the bucket! Yet, many families have assumed that priests and the professionals in our parishes are the ones who will see to the formation of our children. In Deuteronomy 6:5-9, we’re reminded that family discipleship and formation isn’t something we’re doing for the kids. It’s for us parents as well! The practice of family prayer shapes each of us. Thanks be to God, our faith is meant to be lived out in our daily lives. This means prayers can just as readily be said in the minivan en route to a soccer game or in the parking lot of the grocery store. While worshiping together at church is of vital importance, it isn’t something we do once a week, but rather, is something we need to incorporate into our daily lives and routines. Because faith is as much caught as taught, what better way than to have family prayer together in the home and car and while walking the dog?
So, how do you get started? A great place to begin is with the family prayers in our new Book of Common Prayer. Use them at breakfast and dinnertime. In his Field Guide for Family Prayer, Winfield Bevins reminds us that “the ordinary places that we inhabit most such as the family table, the living room, or even the car can become places of prayer and worship.” The office of morning prayer and evening prayer is something that can readily be woven in to the rhythm of our daily lives. Because so much of family life takes place around the table, this is one ideal location for introducing the prayers, sticky fingers, sippy cups and all! Sixty years ago, the average dinnertime was ninety minutes. Today, it’s less than twelve minutes and often takes place in front of the television, or worse, family members are at the table, but behind the screens of their phones and tablets. Being present to one another is the first step in being able to talk together and pray together. Parents can model “presence” by setting aside their smartphones and asking our children to do the same. Eating together as a family is one of the most profound formational (and counter-cultural!) acts we can engage in. In From Tablet to Table by Leonard Sweet, we’re reminded that “an untabled faith is an unstable faith.”
What’s beautiful about the way the family prayers are set up for us is that a parent can preside when the children are very young, but as the children grow and begin learning these prayers by heart, the children can be called upon to lead and read. I have a dear friend who has found that by inviting his teenage son to read particular Scriptures or collects provided in the family prayers, that his son is more than willing to do so; whereas when he is put on the spot for “spontaneous prayer,” he is much more reticent. At dinnertime a wonderful segue into the office of evening prayer is to ask each family member to reflect briefly on where they were most aware of God’s presence during the day. This is an easy entry-level practice for the Ignatian practice of Examen, which involves a prayer of consciousness (awareness of God’s presence throughout the day) and conscience (where have we sinned—in the things we’ve done and left undone). This doesn’t need to be limited to the dinner table or bedside prayers for compline. It can be done anywhere. Consider the simple gesture of lighting a candle as a visual reminder of Lord’s presence.
Combining prayers with eating as a family is one option. Another is to all pile on the couch or the bed to begin and end the day. If you are musically inclined, adding a hymn can be a wonderful way of enriching your time together. Given the age gap between our oldest son and our daughter, our family practice sometimes involved doing compline with each individual child at his or her respective bedtime. For a number of months I incorporated some of the songs from the Taizé community, particularly one drawing on the words of St. Theresa of Avila: “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten, those who seek God shall never go wanting.” One night as my daughter and I were singing this she abruptly stopped and asked, “Mommy, why can’t Moses and God go hunting?” I was completely stumped until I realized that like many young children, she had tried to make sense of the words she was hearing (“those who seek God shall never go wanting”) and had come up with “Moses and God can never go hunting.” Oh my. All these years later we still laugh about that! So, one of my pearls of advice for you is that as you begin using the Family Prayer section in the prayer book, allow for some lightheartedness and humor to be a part of your practice. In one of the Simpson’s episodes revolving around Thanksgiving, Homer offers the following prayer, “Thank you, Lord, for another crack at togetherness.” Embrace the togetherness, cracks and all! Whether you are gathered around the family table sharing a meal, or in your children’s rooms at bedtime, engaging in the practice of family prayer with an attitude of gratitude will yield far more joy and fruit than approaching prayers as a dull duty. Intentionally setting aside family time for prayer will result in a pattern of consistency, which will go a long way in helping your home become a house of prayer. In all its messy glory your family will be a living metaphor for our connection with other human beings as well as our dependence on the God who loves and cares for and feeds us.
Note: The family prayer section in our new prayer book can be found on pages 66-78 of the Book of Common Prayer. Several helpful books that you may want to read to help inspire and motivate you are: Grow at Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Family Discipleship by Winfield Bevins; This Life That Is Ours: Motherhood as Spiritual Practice by Lauren Burdette, and Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Warren.