The other morning after Sophie finished nursing I sat her next to me on the bed while I tried to finish my morning prayers. Bella came in and wanted me to read to her so I distracted her as I often do by reading my psalms out loud so that she felt included and could pray along. After a while she wandered off again. But I continued to pray aloud. Then when I got to the Glory Be at the end of the psalm, I noticed Sophie looking at me and rubbing her hand over her belly in a deliberate way. Was she trying to make the sign of the cross? It seemed likely.
I decided to try an experiment, when I sat her down for breakfast, I moved her hand in the sign of the cross and folded her hands together as I prayed a blessing over the food. She beamed happily at me as we prayed. That night at bedtime I paused before nursing her to pour a little holy water in her palm and again moved her hand through the sign of the cross and then up to bless me and then down to bless baby Benedict in my belly. She laughed joyfully, clearly excited as I helped her to pray. She sat in my lap as I prayed, not anxious as she usually is at that time, crying for milk, but smiling and peaceful. When I finished praying then she was ready to nurse.
The excitement in Sophie’s eyes was almost the same as when I understand her attempts to speak or to sign “more” or “dolly” or “daddy”. But there is something more there as well. A divine spark, dare I say?
When Bella was about this age we began praying night prayers with her. She started to try to make her own prayer gestures, folding her hands, attempts to bless herself. It seems clear to me that children as young as one can have a desire to pray and that by helping them to use their bodies to pray, even if their lips cannot, we do them a great service which they receive with joy and gratitude.
It makes me so angry therefore when I see well-meaning people say we needn’t bring young children to mass because “they don’t get anything out of it anyway.” And this is of children of 4 or 5 years, much older than my girls. They are so wrong. Children who are still unable to speak words may still praise God and yearn for His presence. They can and do express religious yearnings that are not mere imitation but surprise me and go beyond what I expect they are capable of doing or understanding. Bella loves to look at holy images, to kneel and fold her hands and pray, to bless herself with holy water and to genuflect in front of the tabernacle. When I have taught her these things she takes to them eagerly. Not out of a desire to please me and follow my orders but because she is given a language to express what is already in her heart.
So please, take your children to church. Teach them to sing and pray, help them to move their bodies in prayer, pray for them and with them. help them to know and love God. It is never too early for them to learn. And you may be surprised at how much you learn as well.