Last week my wife gave birth to our second child, a son. I’ve heard varied experiences from parents about the changes a second child brings. Some don’t notice much change from one child to two while others who feel the house turned upside down as soon as the newborn came home in the carseat. For us, it’s too early to tell, but there’s a definite change in daily rhythm. Or more accurately, nightly arrhythmia.
As our son figures out his days and nights, my morning and evening routine has changed a great deal. That means my customary time for daily prayer has been replaced by helping my wife with our children’s needs: soothing a fussy child, changing his diapers, or helping Emily with other immediate needs around the house. Over the next several months, I’ll find my new rhythm, but it will be a while before that comes. But that’s too long to postpone a regular prayer life.
For several years I’ve sought ways for tired and exhausted parents to practice prayer in their lives. It’s not easy and young parents deserve compassion and understanding in the challenge to center their lives in prayer. But they also need something more than compassion and understanding—they need inspiration to pray throughout the day. Sentence prayers make that possible.
A tradition of short prayers
Over the past few months, I’ve read a few short books on the practice of prayer and there’s a consistent theme throughout these works: brief sentence prayers offered throughout the day ground everything in worship and relationship with God. The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian pilgrim in the 19th century, chronicles one man’s spiritual journey to faithfully ‘pray without ceasing.’ The answer to that challenge was the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Over and over again throughout the day, this pilgrim prays ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ in all situations.
The desert fathers of early Christianity derived this prayer from the Gospel story when a man cried out to Jesus for healing. Since the early centuries of our faith, this seven word prayer has centered believers in the presence of God in any and all situations. These seven words are a gift to parents to shape and order their days with their children, especially when all around them is disorder and chaos.
Praying into the chaos
Do you feel anxiety tighten in your chest when you look at that playroom that’s totally wrecked? ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ When the dishes stack high in the sink and your energy is spent after finally getting the kids down, what can you say? ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Praying the Jesus Prayer doesn’t put the dishes away, but it helps me hear the voice of God in the place of exhaustion.
The Jesus Prayer is the best sentence prayer the faith has given us, but it’s not the only one. St. Francis de Sales is a strong advocate of several sentence prayers in his book, Treatise on the Love of God. ‘Lord, I am yours and You are mine.’ ‘Come Lord Jesus, draw me to yourself.’ And the Psalms are a great source of brief prayers, too. To conform every activity in worship, we may simply pray this verse over and over: ‘Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.’ These simple prayers protect us from forgetting the Lord when the demands are great upon us.
I believe designated time for personal, uninterrupted worship is one of the greatest priorities for individuals within a family. Spouses should help one another in family and household tasks so that each may commune with the Lord in daily prayer. But when crying or sick children require constant attention, there must be other recourses to prayer when a quiet half-hour is not possible. Drawing near to Christ with brief sentence prayers in a time of crisis and chaos is abiding in his love all the same.
Pray where you are, not where you’re not
St. Jane de Chantal said, ‘The essence of prayer is not always in being on one’s knees, but in keeping our will united to God’s no matter what happens.’ And we know what God’s will is in all things: to love Him supremely and love our neighbor as ourselves. To love one’s closest little neighbors—one’s children—and one’s most beloved neighbor—one’s spouse—we need prayers that will sustain us throughout the day. These sentence prayers keep us tethered to the love of God. Even when the dishes pile high and the toys clutter a room that was just cleaned an hour ago.