My son recently broke his leg—what they call a “toddler fracture.”
As we shuttled him back and forth from doctors’ offices and the ER, we were trying to explain to his big sister why he needed so much help.
We like to be accurate with our kids when we can, rather than dumbing down facts for them. So we told her: “Sweetie, your brother fell in a bad way and broke a bone in his leg. We have to take him to the doctor so they can give him the bandages he needs to keep it steady and help it heal. That way, after a while, it won’t hurt anymore.”
A three-year-old doesn’t understand that beneath our skin are layers of fat and muscle, and beneath those is a bone that makes our limb sturdy but can be broken under certain circumstances. She looked at her brother’s leg and, like the rest of us, saw no bruising or swelling or blood. This was not like any “owie” she had seen before.
But toddlers are smart, and they can be excellent with context clues. She heard “hurt,” “broken,” “doctor,” and “heal” and knew what those things meant. She could see that his leg was causing him pain despite having no visible wound.
She looked at me, nodded gravely, and said “My brother’s gonna be okay, right?”
I assured her he would.
Then she promptly ran to the kitchen to get him a frozen toy—something she knew helped with hurting teeth, which likewise could not be seen but were painful nonetheless—and brought it over to him to put on his leg. In his frustration he slapped it away and she, undeterred, rubbed his back and said, “It’s gonna be okay, Byron. I’m sorry it hurts.”
And that was all she needed to know. Though she could not understand the science of his injury, she could see that he was hurting and that he needed tending. That was that.
When I think about the concept of prayer, I think about how my daughter must feel in confusing moments like this. When it comes to prayer, I’m the child—I’m the one trying to grasp a topic too deep to understand.
Prayer is Beyond Us
I heard something at a recent retreat that, intellectually, was incredibly dense: “Prayer is a conversation with God, in which we get to know Him, He gets to know us, and we get to know ourselves.”
How can prayer be like talking with God when I’m doing all the actual, verbal talking? How can I get to know Him when He doesn’t literally answer my questions or tell me about Himself? How can I get to know myself by trying to grasp what He has to say to me?
Instead of becoming discouraged by my unknowing, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to be like my toddler: to pick apart what concepts were familiar to me and try and pull some understanding from how they all worked together in that statement. I wanted this lesson to make me better at prayer.
The truth is that, like many components of the Faith, prayer is a mystery. We aren’t able to fully understand it because we only see one small piece of the puzzle: what we experience as the Church Militant. Someday, we’ll know it deeply when we really can talk to God face-to-face and ask Him. But until then, we need to accept the unknown.
That doesn’t mean we must languish, though. There is so much fruit to be born from even the limited knowledge God has blessed us with in this life.
Try This as You Pray
During the retreat, Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin went on to talk about how the nature of prayer frightens us. It could be easy to simply ask God for the things we want, but to go further than that—to use prayer as an opportunity to examine our faith and ourselves—can be intimidating.
We don’t like to admit to, let alone study, our flaws. But, Father Sternberg said, prayer is the safest and most fruitful place to do that.
What do you pray for most often? Which seemingly unanswered prayers most disappoint you? Do you pray mostly for yourself? For your family? For strangers?
How much of your prayer life is dominated by thanksgiving? What about praise? Is prayer time your self-care, or is it a time in which you can glorify and adore your Father—or is it both?
Which saints do you invoke in prayer? What unbidden thoughts tend to come to you while you’re reciting a rosary or chaplet? What topics do you shy away from when speaking to God, and where do you think your shame comes from?
These are all beautiful questions—but they are challenging. They’re challenging to keep in mind during your prayer routines, and the answers to them may challenge your perspective on yourself.
If you have a prayer journal, write down whichever of these questions speak to you—and whichever others you come up with on your own—and revisit them immediately after concluding a prayerful moment each day. Record your answers and give yourself the grace to recognize their meaning. Uncover what’s beautiful about you. Uncover what needs work.
Then, go right back to praying and ask God for His grace to help you do that work.
Check out part two of this series for further reflections on prayer and how we can do it better!