From the time they were born, my daughters were surrounded by prayer. As the children of two priests, they began attending church at less than a week old. Their dad and I said bedtime prayers over their crib: the General Thanksgiving, the Song of Simeon, the Aaronic blessing. These are the ancient, scripted prayers of our Episcopal tradition, and we wanted our children to grow up bathed in their words.
But it was also important to us that, as soon as they were able, our daughters learned to pray for themselves. As I often tell my congregations, prayer is not a spectator sport. It is not something for clergy (or parents) to simply do on their children’s behalf. Prayer is something that even the youngest among us can do.
So when our daughters were not-quite-two and four, Casey and I decided that we would give our daughters the responsibility for saying grace at meals. We made a commitment to say a blessing or grace at every meal, every time. Whether we were eating at home or in a restaurant, whether it was an ordinary night or a special occasion, we would bless our food every time we ate. And we would ask our children to say that blessing.
Grace is a good place to start, because the prayers for grace are usually both simple and memorable. Our family uses a few sung prayers: the Johnny Appleseed blessing, a “Superman” blessing my husband and I sang at summer camp, and a Hebrew blessing my youngest daughter sung at her Jewish day care. Even the smallest children can learn to sing a blessing; they can learn the words right alongside ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ and ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’
We also have a “blessing die,” which we received as a gift when our first daughter was born. The die is a wooden cube with a different, simple grace printed on each of the six sides. Even when our children were too young to read the words, they could take turns rolling the die, and we could read the words for them.
Each night, one of our girls would be responsible for saying grace, either singing one of our songs, or rolling the die and we would read the prayer. They would take turns, night after night, leading our family in prayer.
Though it was a simple thing, it wasn’t always easy. Some nights we’d get halfway through dinner before one of us (usually one of the girls!) would remember, “We forgot to say our blessing!” But more quickly than any of us imagined, it became as natural as breathing. It wouldn’t occur to us to start eating without one of the girls praying first.
The repercussions of this simple act were deep and surprising. Within a few months, my oldest daughter had memorized all six prayers on the blessing cube. She was in the early stages of reading, and the graces from that die were among the first things she learned to read. And many nights, when I couldn’t remember whose turn it had been the night before, we would have two blessings, or even three or four. Both girls were eager to pray; they saw it as a privilege and a gift. Sometimes Adelaide, my youngest, would finish one of the singing prayers and just launch into the next one, with barely a breath in between. Our food was well and truly blessed.
And soon, all on their own, they moved beyond the scripted, memorized prayers. Isabelle, my oldest, would ask to say the blessing, and instead of picking up the cube, she would close her eyes and start saying a beautiful, extemporaneous prayer of her own invention. Words and phrases from some of our regular blessings, or some of our Sunday liturgies, would shine through, as well as words from our daily conversations, the names of friends or loved ones, and much more. She would start with the familiar, and then go “off script” and talk to God. She learned to pray.
Last week, our church passed out rocks and a small prayer card, encouraging everyone in the congregation to pray for our youth pilgrims who are travelling this week. As we sat down to dinner, my youngest, now four, cried, “Wait!” She ran from the table to get her rock, and brought me the prayer card. Clutching the rock in her small hands, she closed her eyes, sat in silence for a minute, and then said, “Ok mommy, now read the blessing from the card.” She learned to pray.
Meals have become the time when most of our family prayers are offered; not because my husband and I designed it that way, but because my daughters desire it. It’s become so much more than simply a blessing over a meal. For them, eating and praying, praying and eating, are intimately and inextricably tied together. Without meaning to, my husband and I taught them about Eucharist, and they have taught us as well. They learned to pray, and it all started with Grace.
Does your family offer grace before meals? How might it change you if you did?