Learning to Pray with the Heart of a Child

One night earlier this week, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. Everything in life seemed dark and heavy. Everywhere I looked, I saw something wrong. Things that wouldn’t normally bother me suddenly became too much to bear. Nothing felt right or peaceful. I sat down, exhausted, barely able to think or move. All I wanted to do was go to bed, but there was still so much to do. Hours of chores lay ahead of me, and I didn’t know how I would find the energy to do them. There were miles to go before I slept, and the road looked long and bleak. 

Then my nine-year-old son came in, sat down beside me, and put his arm around me. He leaned in and softly said, “You are the best mom.” 

As he pressed his head against mine, I breathed in the gift of peace that God had sent me through the heart of my child. My problems weren’t gone, but the love of this child was a balm to my weary soul. My strength was renewed. Now I could persevere in the tasks that awaited me.

Reflecting on this moment afterwards, I realized that this child had given me a living example of how I should approach God in prayer. If he could soothe my heart with one small gesture, couldn’t I soothe the Heart of Jesus in the same way?

The “Right Way” to Pray

Recently I’ve been going back and reading through my old prayer journals from years ago. Looking through old journals helps me to see and to remember what the Lord has done for me and how He has moved in my life. In the journal entries I wrote when I was a grad student, a major theme was my desire to learn to pray better, to pray with less distraction, to have more focus in my prayer time, and to “fully enter in” to prayer. 

Back then, I used to go to adoration for an hour every day, and there was another girl who would go at the same time as I did. She would kneel down, close her eyes, and disappear into silent prayer for the full hour. I, on the other hand, needed to keep myself focused by writing in my journal. There was no way I could just close my eyes and pray like she did, but I longed for that ability. Some people want superpowers like x-ray vision or invisibility; the superpower I wanted was to be able to pray for an hour with total focus. Somehow it seemed to me that this girl had achieved a higher degree of prayer than I had because she was capable of praying without distraction for a whole hour. Meanwhile, my hopelessly distracted mind seemed to me to be a moral failure, or at least a weakness, and I lamented it. Would I ever learn to pray well? To pray “the right way?” 

When I read these old journals now, after years of raising children, I have to shake my head and smile at my former self. Because first of all, I had no idea what that girl next to me was actually doing during that hour! For all I knew, she could have been sleeping, or daydreaming. 

But second of all, either way, it didn’t matter. Both of us were there with Our Lord in adoration, and what mattered was simply being with Him—whether that was time spent in meditation, in formal prayer, in journaling, in spiritual reading, or even in sleeping. 

“I should be distressed that I drop off to sleep during my prayers and during my thanksgiving after Holy Communion,” St. Therese of Lisieux said. “But I don’t feel at all distressed. I know that children are just as dear to their parents whether they are asleep or awake, and I know that doctors put their patients to sleep before they operate. So I just think that God ‘knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.’”

The Simplest Words of Love

As St. Therese knew so well, the little child is the example, the star student in the school of love. For while adults overcomplicate prayer, worrying about what type and how much and which ones are the best, Jesus takes a little child and says to us, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

When I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders that night earlier this week, my child didn’t sit next to me worrying about whether what he was saying was the right thing, whether it was the best thing, whether it was the thing that would bring him closest to me. He didn’t look at the other children in our family to see if their ways of approaching me were better than his. He didn’t stand in the doorway wondering what was the most effective path to take to reach me. He just came in, sat down, leaned into me, and said those five words that soothed my tired heart: You are the best mom.

Likewise, when I want to approach God, to console His Heart, I don’t need to spend time worrying about whether I am kneeling in the right way in prayer, whether I am saying the best things with the ideal amount of focus, whether I am fully entering in, whether I am doing a good enough job at being free from distractions, whether others are praying better than I am, or whether the path I’m taking is the most effective way to reach Him. Instead, I can remember the example of this little child, and remember that Jesus told me to be like him. 

That means that when I want to show Jesus my love and to console His Heart in prayer, it is enough that I go to Him, lean in, and softly say to Him the simplest words of love. 

Jesus, You are the best. 

He will know and feel and answer the unpretentious love of a childlike heart.

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Maura Roan McKeegan is an award-winning author of twelve Catholic children’s books. Her most recent titles include Julia Greeley, Secret Angel to the Poor (Magnificat-Ignatius Press), In This Catholic Church (OSV), Peter and Jesus by a Charcoal Fire (Emmaus Road), and Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press), co-authored with Scott Hahn. She is also a contributor for various magazines. She has a special interest in Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo and writes about him at her new Substack site, Stories of Don Dolindo (https://mauraroanmckeegan.substack.com/).You can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan(at)gmail(dot)com.

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