prayer, spirituality

Praying like a Child

As I’ve been reflecting over the Advent season, I have realized I am not good at prayer. Jesus talks time and time again about needing to be child-like to enter the kingdom of heaven. As much as I try, I have noticed that I carry a lot of adult bitterness into my relationship with Him, especially when I pray.

Maybe it was the beautiful words of Isaiah that speak such clear hope in the coming of a Savior. Maybe it was the happy anticipation of Christmas with my family (and nearly 2 weeks off thanks to PTO and the rotating holiday schedule!) being tainted by some of the worst and most stressful shifts of my life at work. Maybe it was the prospect of the new year with more competing demands than I have ever had.

Whatever it was, in looking at my life and having no idea how it is all going to work, I realized I am horrible at prayer. I pray like an adult with a bulleted agenda instead of like a child who just wants to sit with her father. What I am missing is trust.

In a Lighthouse Catholic Media CD I have near memorized (because I listen to it at least 3 times a year), Fr. Thomas Richter in a talk titled Trust in the Lord states, “A child trusts.” The child-like quality Jesus is teaching me and wanting me to develop is trust. I get it. It’s been a challenge for months.

In seeing what a mess my life is and how different it is than I expected, I am having a hard time believing that God can come in and save it. I honestly do not know how I am going to stay sane and get through this next year. I do not know if the things I am striving for and sacrificing for are going to be worth it. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out and work out.

A child would trust. But the adult me is bitter and full of doubts.

The other day, I was very upset, a likely combination of a lack of sleep, an incredibly frustrating and busy day at work, and a friend not getting back to me. I was overwhelmed with a sense of being utterly unloved. As I wail, swore, and vented to God, a soft but resounding answer came: “You are loved beyond your measures.”

I measure love by spontaneous text messages, sweet cards, having the dishes done or recycling taken out without asking, planning things so I don’t have to, hugs, listening sessions, adventures, phone calls. I look for concrete evidence of affection, especially from God. Much of the time, I do not need a ton of evidence of love to feel it. But when I am in a poor state of mind and the concrete evidence I seek is lacking, I lose it. I think God is gone and will never make Himself known again.

Children do not measure love and affection like adults do. If they receive nothing that they ask for all day, they may cry and wail, but they are confident that they are loved. Adults may never cry and wail. They suck it up. They build walls, do not ask for love in the same way again, and shield themselves from disappointment. They count how they are loved and expect equity in their affection.

But a parent-child relationship is always slanted. A parent always provides more love and affection than the child does. The parent always sacrifices more. The parent never expects to be fully compensated in return. Yes, the tables turn as the parent ages and the child is a grown up, but for the most part, parent-child relationships are not equitable.

In the same way, our relationship with our Heavenly Father is slanted. He always loves us more. Our Father always provides more love and affection than we do. Our Father always sacrifices more. Our Father never expects to be fully compensated in return.

If we have a Father who radically loves us more than we ever could who calls us to emulate His love in our relationship, where do we get this idea that love ought to be equitable? Where love can be traded? Where love is a bargaining tool? This tainted idea of love is not the love of the Father who loves without counting the cost.

A small, simple book I love is With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen. He discusses how to pray with authentic hope. Hope is built on trust, the trust that the Father loves us and cares for us. The premise of the book is based the story of a demented elderly woman who fought with the staff trying to help her with everything she had in  order to hold onto a small coin. Nouwen writes that “when you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fist and give up your last coin.”

I love finding small coins because to me it is a reminder that God sees my small sacrifices and honors them. The other day at work on a particularly busy day at work, I not only found about a dollar’s worth of small coins, but I also had a patient’s family member insist on turning back to pick up a penny, saying, “Call me silly, but it’s pennies from heaven.” How I needed that reminder that God was with me and calling me to a greater sense of child-like trust in Him.

In one of my favorite sections, Nouwen writes

“Perhaps, in the long run, there is no finer image for the prayer of hope than the trusting relation of little children toward their mother. All day long they ask for things, but the love they have for their mother does not depend on her fulfilling all these wishes. In spite of occasional fits and a few short-lived tantrums if they don’t get their way, little children continue to be convinced that, in the end, their mother does only what she knows it best for them.

When you pray with hope, you may still ask for many concrete things, like nice weather or a better salary. This concreteness can even be a sign of authenticity. For if you ask only for faith, hope, love, freedom, happiness, modesty, humility, etc., without making them concrete in the nitty-gritty of daily life, you probably haven’t invited God in your real life. If you pray in hope, all those concrete requests are ways of expressing your unlimited trust in God who fulfills all promises, who holds out for you nothing but good, and who wants to share goodness and love with you.

– Fr. Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands, emphasis added

All day long [children] ask for things, but the love they have for their mother does not depend on her fulfilling all these wishes. All day long I took ask for things. When I pray, I ask for concrete things: my future husband, clarity in my career when I finish graduate school, protection for my family, friends, and loved ones, whatever thing is stressing me that hour. But the love I have for my heavenly Father is upon dependent on Him fulfilling my desires.

I am praying without child-like trust. I do not trust that if I do not get the concrete things I pray for that I will be cared for. I do not trust that God knows best for me. Truly, all I really need is Christ to walk with me wherever I go, but I want to pick the path and the weather conditions.

When my oldest nephew was a baby, I had a moment where I realized God’s immense love for me. I was a hot mess being woken up in the middle of the night, and my nephew just needed someone to love him. While holding him, I realized how little Christ actually needed from me. Christ the child just needs love. That love does not need to be perfect; it just needs to be given.

Children have so much to teach us about love, even in how they mourn.

I love watching my nephews mourn and how whole-heartedly they do it. It breaks my heart to watch them cry, but sometimes it is just funny. During a family vacation last winter, my younger nephew Bubba did not finish his dinner and subsequently did not get a cookie for dessert like his brother. He wailed, begged, and cried for 30 minutes saying, “Cookie, mama, cookie!” Though my sister was the one preventing him from getting said desire of his heart, little 2-year-old Bubba still accepted comfort and love from her as he mourned not getting his cookie.

How different I am when God does not give me what I desire! At best I cry, but I rarely turn to Him for comfort when I feel He is the one who wronged me. I doubt His love and affection, let bitterness creep in, and am hesitant to ask for more.

In listening to my friend Claire’s podcast The Catholic Feminist and her interview with a pediatric oncologist named Dr. Melissa Mark, I was struck by how much hope she had. How much trust she had. How much child-like confidence she had in Jesus.

Dr. Mark quotes Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. I had read it over the summer and was particularly struck at the section where Pope Francis relates each Beatitude to holiness. She quoted the Beatitude about weeping:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”

The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.

A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.

– Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, 75-76

I am beginning to have a new appreciation for baby, toddler, and child Jesus and how much wisdom He had, even in that young state. Jesus definitely cried over something small, and accepted comfort from His mother and father. Jesus was obedient to His parents, as we see in the story of the Finding in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). Children do not need perfect parents. They require so little and so much at the same time. I think God is the same way. He asks so little and yet all of me at the same time.

This Christmas, I hope to sit with Christ in prayer with a greater sense of child-like trust. I also hope to learn from the Christ child in a new way, learning how even the King of the universe relied on others. I want to learn authentic hope and how to pray without ceasing for those concrete things I need and want, trusting as a child does that ultimately, He knows and will do what is best for me. Most of all, I hope that in becoming more child-like in my relationship with Christ that I can be more of a sacrificial, loving person who loves like a mother, never counting the cost of my love but gladly giving my affection to others.

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