If I had to summarize my prayer life in one sentence, it would be this: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (see Matt. 26:41). I imagine this is the case for many parents, who feel they are merely “scraping by” or “surviving, and not thriving.” Yes, these are clichés. Yes, they ring true.
We Cowdens have seen this in our lives. There are seasons when our family prays regularly together and other seasons when we feel we hardly resemble a Catholic family, outside of attending Sunday Mass. It was not always like this. It is humbling to compare our lives as parents with our lives before having three children.
When we began dating in college, Dave used to visit my residence hall after classes, and we would pray and read Scripture together. We would make holy hours at the university’s Catholic chapel. We read books alongside each other, and I would zero in on the pages he had dog-eared and the sections he had highlighted.
After our wedding, Dave was an altar server at EWTN’s daily Mass, and we taught an eighth-grade Confirmation class together. We dreamed about how perfect and holy our future Catholic children would be.
What a wake-up call we’ve had! God has given us three wonderful little Catholic children, but they’re not “holy” in the way we planned, and that is partly due to our shortcomings as parents. Our eldest, who is five years old at the time of writing this book, insists on squirming in the pew, whispering very loudly during Mass, and complaining when she doesn’t like the music. Our three-year-old son can barely make it through the homily before David has to haul him out to the narthex. And the jury is still out on our youngest, who is only a toddler but already has discovered the thrill of hearing her babbles echo through an otherwise quiet church—in the middle of Mass, of course.
But they are holy children in their own special ways. If she is not tired, hungry, or in a feud with her little brother, our eldest genuflects reverently when entering and exiting the pew. During the Elevation, she closes her eyes and whispers, “My Lord and my God!” She stole my chapel veil because she wanted to wear one too. She invokes St. Anthony regularly for his intercession in finding her lost toys, and he listens! She cries when we talk about Baby Jesus sleeping in the manger because there was no room for Him in the inn. She hates the idea of sin. She volunteers to do extra chores around the house so she can earn money to “save the babies.” After every Mass, she insists on lighting candles and praying before the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. And she recently told me she wants to be a doctor, like her namesake, St. Gianna Molla.
In March 2020, when the Covid lockdowns began and churches closed, my early-rising son and I started watching EWTN’s televised daily Mass together. Some of his first words were “Mass,” “Rosary,” “Amen,” and “Father Mark” (which came out as “Fah Mah”). His ears perk up when Fr. Joseph begins the EWTN Family Prayer. He even surprised me one morning by making the Sign of the Cross: “Fah, Suh, Hah-sa, AMEN!” And he enthusiastically follows along while we read children’s books on saints together.
He has developed a fondness for Pope St. John Paul II, thanks to some children’s books and toys we have. He doesn’t quite understand who these holy men and women are yet, but he will one day!
And, again, the jury is still out on our third child, but with a name like Frances Clare and with the influence of her siblings, surely there’s hope for her, right? She recognizes “Mama Mary” in art around our house and thinks every baby is Jesus. Since every baby is made in the image and likeness of God, I guess she’s not wrong!
Despite what we feel are our weaknesses and failings as tired parents, our kids somehow have managed to retain some of the Faith. That wouldn’t have happened if we never tried.
Yes, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” That’s our human nature. Even Jesus’ closest friends could not stay awake with Him for one hour while He prayed (Matt. 26:40), but He didn’t give up on them, and He hasn’t given up on us. From our own spiritual journey, we realized that our “flesh” is always going to be weak. There will always be more we could have done to help our kids grow in holiness. There will always be times when we let God down or let our kids down. When “the spirit is willing,” however, we invite God into our homes and open our hearts to receive the grace to be good parents—grace that we can receive only from God; the grace that ultimately saves
our children’s souls.
With a willing spirit, we open the doors to our homes and give the Holy Spirit room to work. There are specific things we can do to awaken and nurture a willing spirit—such as displaying “holy reminders” and dedicating time to prayer. These make it easier for us as tired parents to practice and pass on the Faith. And with a spirit of humility, we can abandon ourselves to the will of God. We can do nothing without Him, and everything we are comes from Him. Therefore, in our spiritual journey, we should always strive to seek His will and confidently trust in His goodness and mercy.
Editor’s note: The above article is an excerpt from The Prayer Book for Tired Parents, available now from Sophia Institute Press.