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    sunny field of daisies

    Children’s Prayer

    Small children are attentive to the present moment and marvel at creation. Maybe that’s why Jesus says the kingdom of God is theirs.

    By Jonathan Culbreath

    May 7, 2022
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    One of my favorite activities of late has been to sit on the balcony of my small apartment with my one-year-old son in my lap, doing nothing but looking out onto the world. Often he has just awoken from a nap and is in a happy but very tranquil mood (he is not always in such a mood). I carry him to the balcony, sit him in my lap, and together we just watch the world, noticing what happens as it happens.

    In Southern California these days, the weather in February is something like an early spring. The trees still have leaves and the grass is green; there are birds everywhere and bees buzzing in the trees above. There is sometimes a cool but refreshing breeze, and the sun is warm, especially in the mornings, since our apartment faces east. So the outdoors are supremely comfortable and there is much for a little child to notice.

    When my son and I sit in the great outdoors, we do nothing but sit. I leave my smartphone inside and try to do nothing but pay attention to what is before me: the birds flitting by, the tree branches swaying in the breeze, the warmth of my child’s body in my lap.

    Meanwhile, he is, if anything, more mindful of what happens. He is less interested in pointing out what he sees than in simply sitting and seeing. I try to notice what he sees. I catch him turning his head slightly when a squirrel rushes up a tree, or perking up when he hears a car revving its engine on the next block. Together, he and I are having a shared moment of what the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has described as mindfulness.

    It is not only in his more tranquil moments that I see my son’s capacity for paying attention. In his more playful moods, the same capacity shows in his wonder and exuberance at everything he notices.

    Children know God better than we adults do.

    Since my son was born, I have been making a point of practicing mindfulness in an effort to commit more intentionally to my prayer life. In this effort, I cannot help but be inspired by the example of my little son. Mindfulness comes more naturally to children at a very young age than it does to adults, who are beset by memories, anxieties about the future, and abstract thinking. Children are not weighed down by any of these things, at least up to a certain age (around middle school, I’d venture to say from my experience as a teacher). They are therefore far more capable of simply noticing what happens to them and around them in the present moment – and this moment is full of wonder for them.

    When Jesus taught us to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, I expect he meant something like this: try to cultivate the faculty of attention, which children naturally possess, and pay attention to the wonder of being alive in the present moment, for the kingdom of God is with you now.

    Of course, as a teacher, I have often complained about my students’ lack of attention spans – yet I think I speak inaccurately when I make such a complaint. On one level, of course, very young children cannot sustain the attention needed to listen to a discourse or monologue of any length. Any teacher who attempts to teach kindergarteners by lecture is wasting his time.

    Yet this is not necessarily on account of inattentiveness. Children at that age are indeed capable of great feats of attention, but it is an attention that is concentrated on what is taking place in the moment. They are not easily distracted by someone else’s attempt to expound upon some interpretation!

    little girl in a sunny field of daisies

    Photograph by Melissa Askew (Public domain)

    As they grow older, children naturally accumulate memories, begin to think about the future, and develop a greater capacity for rational thought. They develop more complex emotions, more self-awareness, a more fragile ego. These are all good things, but they each come with certain risks.

    Without memory, for example, we would not learn from past mistakes or accumulate the experience necessary for abstract reasoning and prudent decision-making. At the same time, memory brings with it the danger of dwelling in the past, rather than giving one’s attention entirely to what (or who) is before you. The capacity to plan for the future, likewise a good and necessary thing for human development, also brings with it anxiety in the face of the unknown. Rational thought separates human beings from the animals; it is the basis of scientific exploration, technological innovation, and philosophical speculation. And yet it brings with it the risk of abstraction, of dwelling in a logical world of our own construction that distracts us from the concrete reality of the present moment.

    Very young children are yet to be threatened by the dangers of these faculties, these potential sources of distraction. The art of mindfulness is really a matter of preserving our original childlike dispositions throughout the development of our other faculties. These more developed powers will better serve their purpose if we can maintain a childlike stance towards the world.

    In an essay titled “The Intelligence of Love,” Maria Montessori wrote observantly that love comes naturally to children. Adults do not need to teach an infant how to love. Already, everything he does, he does only out of love. Even the things a child does which adults find annoying are motivated by love! Montessori writes: “It is a terrible nuisance when a child goes in to wake up his father and mother in the morning. But what drives a child to go in search of his parents as soon as he gets up if it is not love?” Indeed, we adults perhaps have more to learn from our children than they from us.

    I often wonder whether, for this reason, it is possible to say that children know God better than we adults do – not through understanding but simply as the goodness which flows through their entire being. This is a more primal, and in some ways a more perfect, way of knowing God. Their experience of life is something akin to the very essence of contemplative prayer. They are the saints among us.

    Contributed By

    Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. His writing has appeared in America Magazine, the American Conservative, the Daily Caller, the Bellows, and Crisis Magazine.

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