Parenthood brings with it a lengthy to-do list. For the first while, we care for all our kids’ needs. As they grow, we help them learn to walk and talk, to swim and skate, and to eat a meal without leaving bits of food in a three-foot radius around their chair. We get to share the things we love with them and warn them of some of the dangers around them. The work changes as they get older, but it never really ends. That’s because as parents, we start to shape every area of a child’s life including their faith. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of parents having the “first responsibility for the education of their children” (CCC 2223), something that is seen loud and clear during the rite of Baptism. Shortly after a child has been baptized, a lit candle is presented to the child’s godparents as the priest says:
“Receive the Light of Christ. Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.”
Not only have I done this on behalf of my children and godchildren, but it was also done for me on the day of my baptism. And there is probably no single practice that I have learned and taught that helps this flame of faith than starting the habit of prayer: “Prayer is turning the heart towards God. When a person prays, he enters into a living relationship with God” (YouCat 469). Without a living relationship with God, one might be tempted to say that our Creed is just a set of beliefs someone else wrote down, our Sacraments mere rituals devoid of meaning, and the moral life is just a set rules that don’t make sense to us. Prayer places all of these things into their proper context.
A good start to understanding what we believe prayer is comes to us from St. Therese of Lisieux. She says that prayer “…is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.” For those of us who struggle with prayer, St. Therese’s words offer us three key insights into what Christian prayer actually is.
First, she points out that prayer is a ‘look turned toward Heaven.’ This means that the one who prays looks beyond him or herself, to Heaven. By prayer we seek to know the God who has created us. It’s not simply a question of deep self-reflection but is by its very design aimed to this eternal ‘Other’ who has revealed Himself to us. Second, when St. Therese says that prayer is ‘a surge of the heart,’ it speaks of an intimate relationship with God. Anyone who has ever been in love has known the experience of being twitterpated and experiencing a surge of the heart at the sight or even the mere mention of their beloved. Our relationship with God is not only an intellectual understanding – something we get to know in our heads – it’s something that is also in our hearts. We are meant to fall in love with the living God. Finally, that prayer embraces ‘trial and joy’ focuses on the fact that prayer will have its ups and downs. There are moments of spiritual consolation, when that surge of the heart is strong, and we feel that God is close to. There are also moments of desolation when prayer is dry, life is difficult, and God seems very far away. Our decision to pray in the moments of consolation AND desolation are the moments where our faith really begins to grow:
Prayer is the great gate leading into faith. Someone who prays no longer lives on his own, for himself, and by his own strength. He knows there is a God to whom he can talk… therefore the effort to pray daily is part of Christian life.” -YouCat 469
Most of us were unaware of the candle a priest presented our parents and godparents on the day of our baptism, but it remains an appropriate image for our own faith. A candle is a fragile light that can easily be snuffed out. But that same candle can also do amazing things. Placed in the center of a dark room, it can cut through the darkness. It can also be the kindling point for a much larger fire, as that small simple light becomes something bigger. Learning to daily turn our own gaze towards Heaven allows our children (and us) to begin to experience what St. Catherine Siena meant when she said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”