“If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thanks,’ that will suffice.” -Meister Eckhart
Inspired by the recent “Just Parenting” post from Carrie Nantais, I have been mindful of teaching my own young children to pray. I especially appreciate and agree with Carrie’s insight that gratitude is a powerful place to start, and can take hold in little ones more effectively than traditional prayers.
My three-year-old son offered to lead us in grace before dinner recently. “Daddy, I don’t want to do the God and angels part… I just want to say ‘thank you.’” And so he began. “Thanks for the food. Thanks for the water. Thanks for my sister Clara.” His eyes panned the room. “Thanks for windows. Thanks for walls.” He turned to me for a closer. “Amen,” I said, beaming. What could I say to follow a toddler’s earnest appreciation to God?
Such prayers have become more regular, and my 21-month-old daughter has caught on, in her own unique way: “Thanks for dinosaurs, poo-poo, zucchini, mommy, daddy.” Now they take turns giving thanks for the meal before them, the mundane around them, and the people they love.
There are practical reasons for gratitude as a starting place for a prayer life. It’s easy! It starts with a simple word, and can go on, as our evening grace sometimes does, forever. Furthermore, doctors highlight the mental and physical benefits of practicing gratitude.
There are social reasons as well. Giving thanks helps cultivate gratefulness that we hope will translate to positive encounters with other people. At the end of playdates, parties, or practices, don’t we all want our child to be the one who runs back, like the lone Samaritan leper in Luke 17: 11-19, to thank the host?
But the main reason I want to instill an attitude of gratitude early and often is not about keeping things simple or instilling manners. For me, gratitude cuts to the heart of Christian spirituality. The source and summit of our liturgical life is, after all, Eucharisteo: “giving thanks.” St. Ignatius’s Examination of consciousness, the only prayer he required his brothers to do daily, begins with gratitude: “The first point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits I have received from him.” Ignatius also asserts that ingratitude is the most abominable of sins, “for it is a forgetting of the graces, blessings, and benefits received.” Remembrance of our abundant blessings, besides helping experience and enjoy God in all things, also opens in us the courage to be radically generous, to “give and not to count the cost.”
As the minds and vocabularies of my children develop and expand, hopefully their prayers practices will too. But in the meantime, what greater gift can I offer my little ones, than to help them see that all is gift?
A native of Montana, Michael Downs now lives in the Bay Area where he serves as Religious Studies Department Chair and Assistant Cross Country Coach at Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school. An alumnus of the University of Notre Dame (B.A. ’00, M.Ed. ’02) and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (M.A. ’07), Michael served as a classroom teacher in Texas, campus minister in Europe, volunteer in India, and outdoor educator in the Northwest before settling in California.