‘Family prayer can move the world,” Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput writes in the foreword to a new book, A Short Guide to Praying as a Family: Growing Together in Faith and Love Each Day. The beautiful book leads my summer reading recommendations this year, but that does not begin to capture the treasure it is. Compiled by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia, commonly known as the “Nashville Dominicans,” with photos by Fr. Lawrence Lew O.P. (who I interviewed about “Tweeting the Gospel” here), it is a resource for any family that wants to pray together with the hows, the whys, and inspiration.
The book is particularly timely given that Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to the United States is for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia — this is the reason and center of his visit. In his foreword, Philly’s shepherd writes that:
if parents love God, children see and learn faith. Parents who pray together teach by the way they live that God is real; that He is present, listening, and eager to be a part of our lives. Helping children learn the habit of prayer thus becomes one of the most important lessons a family can share. A life of prayer makes us fully human because it makes us real; it brings us out of ourselves, again and again, into conversation with the Author of life Himself — the God who made and loves us, and created everything we know.
It’s no secret that marriage and family are in a bit of a state of disarray — and that’s far from something the Supreme Court started last month. If family has a prayer, prayer is a good place to start. This book helps.
Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, O.P., an assistant professor of theology at Aquinas College, served as the editor-in-chief for A Short Guide to Praying as a Family: Growing Together in Faith and Love Each Day and talks with me about it. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is it so important to pray as a family? What can it do for a parent? For a child? For family dynamics?
Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, O.P.: Praying as a family keeps Christ at the center of family life, and it helps everyone to remember what this life is all about — learning to love as Christ does, giving love to and receiving love from others in joy and peace. Our family members are the most important people in our lives, and praying together keeps everyone and everything in perspective. Prayer helps us above all to recall that God is our Father and we are His children; He loves and cares for us, listens to us, and waits for us. We depend on Him for everything.
Prayer helps us above all to recall that God is our Father and we are His children. . . . We depend on Him for everything.
Sometimes one member of the family needs or wants more attention than the others; likewise, some days are more stressful than others. Prayer draws down grace into our lives so that we will know how to respond to needs and wants, and then it also gives us the grace and strength to do so with love.
Parents who pray with their families have found that prayer is a source of peace, grace, and perspective. They say that it has helped them to continually reassess their priorities and choose the most important things over the things that may certainly be attractive and good, but which all too often prevent us from giving time to what is most important. They’ve found that prayer helps them to let go of the unnecessary things so that they can give more time to their family. Some parents who have given more time to family prayer have even noted that they have either completely given up or significantly lessened the time they spend on social media.
Through family prayer, children receive not only the time they so crave to have with their parents, but they also receive the beautiful blessing of learning how to pray, how to turn to God with their troubles and their joys. As they pray with their family, they learn who God is, what prayer is, and become more grounded in their own identity in the family and in God.
So, family prayer is good for both parents and children.
Lopez: What is the most important habit of prayer a family can adopt?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Going to Mass together each Sunday.
Lopez: If there were one thing a family could add today, after weekly Mass, what would you recommend?
Sr. Jane Dominic: We would recommend, depending on the family schedule and the ages of the children, either Family Bedtime Prayer or the Monthly Family Meeting. For families with young children, Family Bedtime Prayer can help to bring the perfect close to each day. It also coincides nicely with the regular getting-ready-for bed routine.
For families with older children, we would recommend the Monthly Family Meeting. One of the most positive ways to build family relationships in times like ours is precisely setting time aside each month during which family members spend time together, pay attention to one another, and connect with each other on the deeper levels. Perhaps after having the first Monthly Family Meeting, families might consider beginning Family Bedtime Prayer since older children and parents also benefit from praying at the end of the day.
Lopez: How might a family see a growth “in faith and love each day”?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Praying as a family helps us to see with the eyes of faith. We see others and the tasks of daily life in a different light, a light that sets us free from unrealistic expectations about ourselves, others, our time, and “the way things should be.” Faith also helps us to see all the blessings the Lord gives to us. As we see His providence and His presence at work in our daily lives, we are filled with gratitude and love. And, we begin to invite Him more and more into our daily plans and decisions, to see as He sees, and to love as He loves. Receiving His love for us inspires us to go out in love to the members of our family with this same love. When family members love one another, they become more respectful towards and attentive to one other. What we could really say is that they affirm one another’s existence, saying to one another in effect by their attitude and actions: “It is good that you are.” Everyone loves to be around people who love and appreciate them. So, when family members love and appreciate one another, they are happy. Thus, when a disagreement or a misunderstanding occurs, the foundation of faith and love are already there, and so opening the lines of communication and reconciliation comes more easily.
Lopez: Is prayer really “as simple and natural as friendship”?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Yes. Friendship comes as a result of our efforts to get to know someone and to be open to receiving them. Take the example of two neighbors who were at first strangers. They happened to start working in their respective gardens at the same time every weekend. Naturally, they would stop and talk to each other, first for shorter and then for longer periods of time. Before you know it, they might not only share gardening secrets but even buy gardening-related gifts for one other. What happens? By those repeated encounters, the conversations, the acts of self-giving and generosity, a friendship is created. This is what creates a friendship: time together, shared experience, presence, desiring what is good for the other, being happy that the other exists. The same is true of our relationship with God. The naturalness of prayer comes from being faithful to our efforts to get to know God and allowing Him to reveal Himself to us and to be present in our lives. As our friendship with the Lord grows, we more and more love the simple fact that God IS and that He is our God.
Lopez: Are some prayers like the Divine Mercy chaplet especially powerful in a family context?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Yes. Almost all prayer is more powerful when it is in community. The Lord Himself assured us, “[W]here two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). God has promised to bless prayer in common. The family is an especially privileged community, instituted by God himself. The first place we encounter mercy is in our own families, and, thus, coming together to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet as a family is exceptionally powerful. It becomes a prayer of praise (for the mercy the Lord has shown us and the mercy our family members have shown us), thanksgiving (for mercy itself), and supplication (for continued mercy among the family members and for the whole world). “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). Imagine how much mercy a family that practices mercy obtains for the whole world!
Lopez: Is getting to know the Holy Family important? For families who might not have a father at home, or a mother, how can this be a source of grace, not hurt or judgment?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Yes. Christian tradition presents the Holy Family as the model for family life. Why? Because for the Holy Family, Christ is the constant center. He is the One who unites Mary and Joseph. The Holy Family undergoes the sufferings of family life, among them: their astonishment at the angel’s message and their uncertainty as they sought to place all their trust in God; the threats against their welfare; the hardship of journeys to the census in Bethlehem and the flight into Egypt; Mary’s and Joseph’s hearing that Jesus would be rejected, “a sign of contradiction”; and Mary and Jesus suffering together the death of Joseph. In our world full of broken families, the Holy Family remains our model, for together they underwent genuine trials and difficulties that are part of our fallen world. They are the model of family life, because they are models of love in the midst of difficulty.
We must also remember that Jesus invites us into His family. He makes Mary our Mother while He hangs from the Cross. And St. Joseph would like to be our foster father too. The Holy Family is the family that we are all invited into.
Lopez: “Please remember that merely saying the prayers is not the goal. The goal is praying; personally encountering the Lord, listening to Him, and giving Him your heart.” How do we know if we’re doing it right?
Sr. Jane Dominic: The Lord wants to be close to us even more than we want to be close to Him. He desires to encounter us more than we want to encounter Him. So, if we desire to encounter Him, that is already a sign that He is at work in us.
So, if we desire to encounter Him, that is already a sign that He is at work in us.
Sometimes the Lord stretches us, and so He does not always give us good feelings in prayer or allow us to experience His presence. These periods help us to grow in fidelity to the Lord and to grow in faith and in the desire to possess Him more.
Lopez: With all due respect, is it possible that religious sisters are unrealistic about the demands of family life? With busy and competing schedules?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Actually, we were concerned about the perception that, as religious, we don’t have a realistic understanding of family life. However, we’ve been happily surprised, now that our book has been out for a few months, that families are writing to us and telling us that they are so pleased with the fact that the book is “both beautiful and practical.” That it reflects a real understanding of family life in our time. Some have even remarked that they didn’t think religious sisters would understand them, but that the book shows that we do. Since Catholic education is our primary apostolate, we do have the opportunity to work and interact with wonderful Catholic families of all kinds. We learn a great deal from the witness of these families with whom we work.
To be absolutely honest, it really is a matter of priorities. The things that are important to us are those for which we make time. God and family should be our top two priorities; but we are all weak, we can easily allow other things — technology, sports, social media, and entertainment — to crowd out our time for God and our time for family. We can allow ourselves to get on to the hamster wheel, keeping ourselves so busy that we never stop and take time to think about where we are placing priorities in our lives. We don’t have to live on the hamster wheel. The Lord wants to show us a simpler way. So the Scriptures tell us, “Cast all your cares on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). The more cares we have, the more we need to rely on God. He can reveal to us where we are off with our priorities and pursuits. He knows those things that will not truly make us happy and the things that will. Prayer is the way of entrusting our lives to Him and accepting His guidance. He shows us the things that only create anxiety and frenzy. He shows us also the things that lead to communion and communication, the things that genuinely refresh us, versus the things that only drain us of energy.
His way is much simpler. Making prayer part of the fabric of daily life leads to peace. Through it, parents can also teach their children how to find peace. For instance, if a parent picks up a child from school and realizes that the child is preoccupied with something, the parent would most likely try to encourage the child to talk more about what he or she is thinking and feeling. After listening and responding to the child’s answers, the parent could say, “Let’s pray about this together.” They can then pray together, and allow God to give them light and peace. By making prayer the priority, they hand things over to God and this almost instantaneously makes life less stressful. It’s not about what we can do; it’s about what we can let God do in our lives.
Lopez: Is there a special place in heaven for a mother who can keep her children still during the family Eucharistic adoration you’re encouraging?
Sr. Jane Dominic: We are not encouraging mothers to take small children to Eucharistic adoration for long periods of time. Rather, we would encourage families with small children to go in shifts. This would mean that one parent might take a small child for a brief visit. Then, the other parent (or an older child) might go to Eucharistic adoration with another child. One of our sisters has the very happy memory of her father wrapping her up in a green blanket and taking her to Eucharistic adoration. She was only about five years old at the time, and she would mostly sleep during adoration, but she felt safe there with her father and knew that they were in the presence of God together. And this made her very happy. He was teaching her about prayer through his example.
Some moms have shared with us that they allow their children to take turns going to Eucharistic adoration with mom or dad after the official bedtime. This makes the children see that Eucharistic adoration is an honor, a privilege. Each family can pray and discern what might be the best way for them to coordinate their own Eucharistic adoration schedule, when they are ready for Eucharistic adoration, knowing that little children need shorter adoration times, whereas the older children may have longer adoration times.
Lopez: What are decades of gratitude?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Decades of gratitude are a simple and beautiful way of giving thanks to God for specific blessings. Decades of gratitude are usually prayed on a rosary. Taking one decade of the rosary, you can do something as simple as this: (1) on the large bead, say something like, “Lord I thank you for . . .”; then, (2) on each of the 10 smaller beads, say one specific thing for which you are grateful, like, “the conversation I had with Carla today,” or “for the delicious dinner,” or “for John arriving home safely.” A lovely custom is to pray a decade of gratitude at the end of the calendar year, on December 31, giving thanks for the greatest blessings of your life, like parents, siblings, children, the gift of faith, etc. Oftentimes, people find that they need all five decades of the rosary to name all the things for which they are grateful.
Lopez: During a family rosary, “Younger children can still be present and listen quietly to the prayers, even as they pray.” That’s not letting anyone off easy! And mom might get to pray, too?!
Sr. Jane Dominic: What we had hoped to express in this part of the book is that each member of the family from youngest to oldest can participate in the Family Rosary. Not all can pray the Rosary at the same level of intellectual and spiritual involvement, because each member of the family is in a different place, but everyone can participate and share in family prayer and unity by their presence. So even a toddler playing with a small toy during the Rosary is still present and hopefully recognizes that something different, peaceful, and spiritual is happening. Perfectionism is one of the great pitfalls of those who want to pray as family. We can’t expect perfection in externals for everyone at every time — what families should want is to place themselves in God’s presence together. For some families, the most realistic thing may be to start with praying one decade of the Rosary together and perhaps eventually working toward praying an entire Rosary together. Prayer often is not what we imagine it to be. For a mother distracted by her children during the Family Rosary, it may be that her prayer has already been made by bringing her family together before the Lord. And this is very pleasing to Him.
Lopez: What is the “mystery” of prayer?
Sr. Jane Dominic: If prayer is a conversation with God, then it is a conversation with One who is “full of surprises,” as our Holy Father likes to say. There’s no set formula for prayer. When Pope Benedict the XVI was once asked in an interview, “How many ways are there to heaven?” He answered, “as many as there are people.” The same is true for prayer. There are as many ways of prayer as there are people, for it is our relationship with God. Every individual has his or her own unique relationship with God, and this relationship is the most intimate one of all. That is why this relationship must remain a mystery to others, because it is always developing, always growing, always changing. The mystery of prayer is the mystery of becoming who we are, of allowing God to lead us in our lives, of making our journey to the house of the Father.
Lopez: Can a small child really understand intercessory prayer?
Sr. Jane Dominic: One of our sisters has a little niece, Monica, who is only two years old. Her parents have taught her “Baby Sign,” a form of sign language for young children. One evening, it was storming outside, and they had a knelt down together as a family to pray. At one point in the prayer, they turned to little Monica and asked her what she wanted to pray for. Monica, in sign language, indicated to her mother that she wanted to pray for the birds. When her mother asked her why, Monica signed “wind” and “rain.” She had begun to learn intercessory prayer from her parents. It is just as when children see their parents helping other children or helping one another, they want to imitate them. The same is true for prayer. When little children see and listen to intercessory prayer, they also want to participate. Intercessory prayer is a way of helping others, and children want to help others in this way too.
Lopez: “Children readily accept this practice of offering sufferings as sacrifices.” Even today when the adults work hard to try to eliminate it?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Suffering is a part of life. Parents naturally try to protect their children from suffering, but there are sufferings that cannot be avoided. It is when inevitable sufferings come that children most need their parents beside them, comforting them, and teaching them how to accept suffering, how to think through suffering, and how to invite God into their suffering. This is what gives their suffering meaning and makes it bearable: when they can unite it to the suffering of Christ in love.
Lopez: How does prayer make us more fully human? Doesn’t it actually take us into retreat mode? It might be considered not fully active? When I tweet encouraging prayer for the persecuted, a frequent response is: Why not DO something instead?
He created us in His image and likeness, thus the more we understand who He is through prayer, the more we will understand who we are. We find our identity in Him.
Sr. Jane Dominic: Prayer makes us more fully human in that it is when we pray that we recognize that the Lord is God, that He is our Creator and we are His creatures. We recognize both our need and our many gifts. He created us in His image and likeness, thus the more we understand who He is through prayer, the more we will understand who we are. We find our identity in Him.
Prayer can lead us into many different modes. At times, what the Lord shows us through prayer is that we do need to go into “retreat mode.” At other times, He shows us that we need to go into “active mode.” Sometimes, He shows us we need to go into “be patient” mode. When we really enter into a conversation with the Lord He guides us and shows us what is needed. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for others is pray for them.
Prayer is not a substitute for action but a recognition that the Lord can best lead us toward the right course of action. Prayer puts us in contact with God so that we can ask Him what role He wants us to play in a particular situation.
Lopez: How can “family prayer move the world” as Archbishop Chaput puts it in his intro?
Sr. Jane Dominic: The family is the fundamental cell of society. If the family becomes prayerful and full of faith, courage and hope, charity and justice, compassion and mutual service, this will naturally spill over into the rest of society. A child who comes from a family that prays together will bring the fruits of that prayer — his faith, his behavior, his reflective attitude, his charity — into his school and onto the playground. Meanwhile, the father and mother of that same family will bring the same salt and light into their workplaces, the grocery store, and into political life itself. Families who pray together cannot but begin to change the world for the better.
Lopez: How can praying “Jesus, You have done everything for me, and I have done nothing for You,” change your life?
Sr. Jane Dominic: Aspirations in general help us to keep our focus on God, to invite him into our daily lives. This particular aspiration leads us to a reality that is true and is actually very healthy and freeing for us to realize: God’s goodness and generosity and our own nothingness. It can fill us with gratitude. Gratitude is transformative. We see that everything we have is a gift, and that we deserve none of it. Not even our very lives. Anyone who lives seeing everything through the lens of gratitude “lives differently,” as Pope Benedict put it. In a sense, this aspiration is the perfect antidote to our contemporary sense of entitlement that only seems to make people more miserable. Seeing life and the people in our lives as a gift from God changes everything.
Lopez: The book is quite beautiful. How did it come together?
Sr. Jane Dominic: About three years ago, we implemented a community-wide initiative in all our apostolic work — namely, offering retreats and other opportunities that could inspire the renewal of the Catholic family. Thanks to the generous gift of benefactors, our community has a retreat house and we have been offering retreats for Catholic moms and Catholic dads as part of that initiative. It was during these retreats that we realized how much parents want to pray as a family, and yet how unequal they feel to the task. The more families we spoke with, the more the idea of a book and the book itself came to take shape. It seemed what was needed was a guide that was accessible to all types of families, those who have never prayed together before and those who already pray together on a regular basis. While some parents have the gift of being raised in a family that prays together, others do not. The same is true for our sisters; some of us grew up praying with our families while others did not. Moreover, the two synods on the family, the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, as well as Pope Francis’s call for more pastoral attention toward the family, were all further inspirations for the book.
Lopez: What are the possibilities and opportunities you see in the pope’s visit this fall for the World Meeting of Families?
Sr. Jane Dominic: We hope and pray that many families attend the World Meeting of Families, and that the Holy Father’s visit will truly give a fresh impetus to the renewal of family life in America. Among the graces we foresee is that of helping Catholic parents to know that they are not alone in their desire and struggle toward holiness. They will see how much the Church cares for them. We believe that the Holy Spirit will be very much at work in the World Meeting of Families, and He knows best of all exactly what each family needs. Even more, He wants to give it to them.
Lopez: What could the year of mercy coming up in December mean for family life in America?
Sr. Jane Dominic: The Year of Mercy is a wonderful gift to the Church. Which one of us does not need mercy, most especially in our families? So often, it is those dearest to us whom we most take for granted. Since the Year of Mercy will be not only a special invitation to extend and to receive mercy, but also a time of great grace for receiving the Lord’s mercy, it promises — if we cooperate — to be a year for restoring, rebuilding, and revivifying the family.