When I ask parents what it means to bring up their children in “the practice of the faith” – something they promise when they have them baptised – they often talk about “bringing them to Mass” – “teaching them about love and kindness towards others” – both of which are absolutely right; but they rarely talk about prayer, about praying with their children. I think, that in our modern western society, this is because young people who do pray (and many do) realise that if they tell others about this, they will be made fun of, even mocked. It is, as a teenager said to me not long ago, not trendy to believe in God. So they learn to keep their faith to themselves, and prayer becomes something very personal and private.
The problem with this is that when these same young people become parents, their prayer is so private that not only are they not aware how often and how much they pray, but their children have no idea that Mummy and Daddy actually pray at all, actually have a deep belief in God. So one of the first things I suggest that young Christian parents should do is to pray with their children. Notice this! I did not say “teach their children to pray”. No, I said pray with their children. For if you just bring them to Mass, teach them to say prayers (all good things of course) they can get the idea that it is all about what you do on the surface; and they do not realise the depth of what is being shared with them.
Now this is not an easy thing to do, is it, because most of us, as I just said, have been conditioned to be embarrassed about our prayer. It’s also difficult because we are being asked to put into spoken words, something that is much deeper than words, something that can feel or sound trivial when brought to the surface. So we might suggest to the little one that we thank God for things that have happened today, but that can easily become a chant of “Thank you God for my scooter or my favourite toy” – often quite trivial things; and the parent then has to bring in things that are deeper in their life, things the child may not yet understand, like “Thank you Lord that I managed not to lose my temper at work today.”
Can I say to those of you whose children are now teenagers or grown up, that most people feel they failed in some way on this. It’s a hard thing to get right. Each parent has to work out how best they can do this, and no-one will get it completely right, because sharing our prayer life with others is very hard. But simple things can be effective. One parent, when discussing this with me, suddenly remembered how her father always made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said a blessing as she went to sleep. “Great idea”, I said, “Do it with your children”, and hopefully, remembering it, she will. Or will adapt it to her own way of doing things.
We forget that the Christian life, and the prayer that makes it real, is always a risk. We are opening ourselves up to things that are deeper than our ordinary surface thinking. We are affirming that we are more than just physical beings. The temptation is to bury it deep within ourselves, as the sad man in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) buried his master’s money in the ground. Yes, that Parable, is not about being a clever investor in the markets, it’s actually about an attitude to life with God, about taking risks. To slightly misquote Albert Einstein, “The person who never made a mistake, never made anything” or as someone said to me recently “Don’t hide what you have been given, or you may never find it again.” Or as St Paul says (1 Thess 5:1-6) “Do not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober.”
The Church has its base not in the Church building, nor even in the Mass, however important such things are, but in our homes, be we married or single. The Church has its base in our life of prayer. Unless people share that prayer with their children and their friends, unless they then bring that with them into the Church and into Mass, then what happens here is empty. It is all outward rituals with no depth. It is we, you and I, who by being open to the deep things of life that are God, make the Mass what it is meant to be. The Church is us, people who pray, who bring out into the open, into the light, the marvellous mystery that is God – around us, beside us and within us.
To pray does not just mean “saying prayers” – although this can be good. Prayer, at its heart, is simply sharing our thoughts and feelings with God, thinking things through with him. And also listening to what God is saying to us! That last bit is perhaps the most difficult thing of all, because we tend to want God to give us answers, and when we don’t get them, we get angry and wonder whether God is there at all.
Look instead at the way Jesus answered questions, for he answered them not with an answer, but with more questions, or with a story, a parable, for them to think about. God is not a machine where you pop a question and get one answer. God is much more like our closest friend, who listens as we pour out our troubles, and helps us most, simply by listening not providing answers, and so helps us gradually to work out the answer for ourselves. And sometimes the answer comes when we simply take some risks in our life, and see how they work out.
Sharing this kind of prayer, this kind of faith with our children, and our grandchildren, and with others, is a vital part of our calling as Christians. This is what practising the faith means.