Some time ago I wrote a brief introduction to making a family altar and having family devotions. It was a popular post. But posting and doing are different animals.
Personally, our family altar and devotion time has been lacking–for a little longer than I’d care to think about. It’s not an unusual problem for families. It’s hard to make new habits and easy to fall into old routines.
As St. Gregory the Great (“A man with a lot of g’s,” as Olivia said) wrote, “While we do not possess [spiritual delights] we regard them with dislike and aversion; but once we partake of them we begin to desire them, and the more we partake of them, the more do we hunger for them.” (PL 76, Sermon 36) Having personal devotions if you’re single, or family devotions with your household is a rich fare that we do not have a taste for at first. And even after we experience the richness of home worship, our crude natures seek rebellion.
In my family we meet resistance with ourselves and from one another. Establishing new habits and actions is hard enough for grown-ups, giving children a new habit that they naturally despise (see St. G the G above) is worse.
My friend Emily wrote about this on her blog recently, and I was delighted with her and Ben’s wisdom. Here is a lengthy quote:
My husband and I pray Morning Prayer every morning. We wanted Dominic, our four year old, to come in and pray with us but he would consistently refuse. He would rather play with his toys or interrupt our prayers to ask us to do something for him. We finally got him to wait patiently while we prayed so that he played by himself quietly in another room. Before we prayed we always called him and invited him to pray with us. But no, he was not interested. So it went on in this way for a while.
I began to notice that he would play with his toys closer and closer to the doorway to the room wherein we prayed…. We are still awaiting his vocal participation but I’m sure that will come in time also.
…We had to be a sort of “Prayer Whisperer” and it took a lot of time and consistency to show Dominic that praying in the morning was something hehimself would want to participate in. It was hard for us adults but seeing the good results, even in mere inches, made it easier to be patient and wait for them to come on their own. It’s so much more pleasing to see your children pray because they want to rather than pray because you demand it. (read it all here)
The same “Prayer Whispering” is what St. Paul has in mind when he writes about mixed-faith marriage.
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Cor. 7:13-14)
Or as St. John says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18). The most powerful witness we can give is not debate and argument, not knocking on doors, haranguing and exhorting, but living–witnessing by our deeds, living by example, and exampling by living.
Childcare experts sometimes tell us that a way to engage children in good behavior is to model it. If we want children to clean up toys, a good way is to get down on the floor and start doing it, and make it look good and fun. Sing the “clean up song.” It’s attractive behavior. My wife uses this technique with me. Once the kids are in bed, I tend to want to collapse on the couch, pick up my book, or get to work on the computer. She walks around, picking up toys, or unloads the dishwasher, or folds laundry. Normally I would never choose to engage in such behavior at that time of the day. But seeing her do it makes me want to help. It’s attractive behavior.
And as Emily reminds us, so is prayer.