Joyful Noise: A Mother’s Prayer Struggle (or, A Mother’s Struggle to Just Pray)

c) 2016, Presbytera Jocelyn Mathewes

Having a two-year-old in church isn’t much like church–at least, it’s not like church the way I did it before I had kids. Like many children her age, my two-year-old doesn’t sit still, doesn’t wait for me to explain things, and doesn’t withstand hunger pangs so we can stay in the sanctuary all the way to communion. Oh, and we’re still dealing with diapers too.

Frequently you’ll find me running after her–she’s fast and can escape easily. I scoop her up to say hello to the icons along the side of the church wall a lot, just to try and stay in the sanctuary. I have a few books I’ve grabbed from the nursery to draw her attention, but often they fall to the floor with a crash or go completely neglected. I’ll wear her in a sling, only to have her fussing (loudly) to get out.

But she’s supposed to be here in the sanctuary, even when it’s hard for me (and her!). She’s supposed to hear these prayers. She’s not supposed to be in a separate little classroom and only come forward to the altar for communion. The angels are here with us, worshipping, and she too can worship, just not in the grown-up way.

But with young kids, it’s can be really hard on the parents. Sometimes I become resentful, because the truth is that having my two-year-old in church (and sometimes even my more well-behaved older children) often makes it more difficult for me to pray in the way I am accustomed to.

Many times I’ve asked myself, am I still worshipping? It sure doesn’t feel like it. But I am. It’s a different kind of prayer.

Having children in church means that I often lose track of where I am in the service, if just for a moment. In a way, my prayers have to become more simple. But that doesn’t make them any less profound! More than ever, I’m praying the Jesus prayer in the back of my head while explaining something, and begging for patience in between petitions.

But those prayers matter a great deal. Through the struggle of parenting children in church, I’m being taught the prayer of the heart–the ceaseless focus on the need for God. Those prayers help me to remember in the moment that I am my children’s teacher; that some days will be better than others, and those prayers remind me that kind and loving instruction has more staying power than anything I can do in threats or fear. They are a deep well I can draw from, and a balm for my heart.

In the moments where I’ve been in despair in the church nave, gazing through the glass window with my toddler running circles around me and my kids lying on the floor, I’ve let myself cry, not because of their misbehavior, but because I miss having a peaceful church experience. But they are also thankful tears.

I’m thankful for those tears because they mean I have a reference point to draw from. Having been Orthodox for awhile before having children, I was able to focus more easily on the sequence of services, and even sing in the choir to learn the music. This means that the liturgy is a familiar rhythm; I can sing & pray even as I’m running after her, and I know where I am even when I have to bop in and out. It means I don’t need to juggle a service book and a kid. It means she can see that I know it in my heart. Your heart is the best place to know a thing, after all.

But without a peaceful, focused church experience, I still have to minister to my own spiritual needs. As a parent, it’s a rare thing to get time to one’s self, or large stretches of uninterrupted time. So here’s what I do to try and cope.

1. Make Time — Getting up early by myself to pray

The first thing is to carve out that uninterrupted time, as best you can. For me, the evening is a crazy whirlwind, and by the end of it, I’m exhausted and ready to crash into bed. I keep my evening prayers super simple by praying as I lie down to sleep, Into thy hands, I commend my soul and body, do thou thyself bless me, have mercy on me, and grant me life everlasting… and crossing myself, using the brief prayer from the Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians. But in the early morning, I can petition for other people, using the prayers out of the very same small book. It’s quiet in the house. There’s space for me to do this in front of the icon corner. It’s peaceful. It centers my day on God from the very beginning.

2. Touch Base Throughout the Day — learn the “short hours”

It’s important to carve out dedicated prayer time, but it’s also important to watch for times where you can offer up even smaller prayers; don’t think that these small things are unimportant. They help to nurture in you a heart that always turns towards God, no matter what the circumstance. The short hours are abridged versions of the monastic prayers offered up at various points during the day. I haven’t learned them all, but I have found the easiest ones to learn are those that I can attach to a rhythm already in place in my life. One of the rhythms of my day is driving to pick up my kids from school at 3pm–the 9th hour. How easy it is for me to tape the prayer to the dashboard of my car and pray it as I’m driving to pick them up. It’s another touchpoint for my spiritual life,

3. Go Digital — combatting the social check-in by getting daily readings through a phone app

As much as I hate to say it, I’m on my phone all day, and I’m often in the habit of picking it up and checking in with social media and other nonsense. But I can take that habit and transform it if I so choose. It requires consciousness and dedication. The Orthodox Study Bible and the GOA’s Daily Readings app are both wonderful investments; one of my favorite things is that the Daily Readings app changes the prayers displayed according to the time of day, so much like the “short hours,” your prayers can be in tune with where you are, right now. (Note: the Daily Readings Lite version doesn’t feature that time-sensitivity.)

4. Get Deeper into Scripture — memorizing scripture alongside my kids

My children are old enough that as a part of our evening prayers, I insert a short verse from Scripture that pertains to the season of the church year. Learning alongside my children teaches them that it’s not child’s play–Scripture is something that you have to imprint in your mind at all times and all ages. This is so beneficial for me, because it gets me into reading and searching Scripture on behalf of my children, and then I regularly contemplate what that scripture has to offer alongside my family. The words enter into my heart, and then I know them there, where they rest and grow. These scriptures can be chosen according to what you come across in your daily readings, or perhaps they could be connected to a particular service that repeats a scripture as a part of its own rhythm.

As with all practices, the most important thing for you, the reader, to remember about all these habits is that these are my personal ways of deepening my spiritual walk outside of the liturgy and other services. As with any habit, you need to find the trigger and anchor point that works for you. If any of these ideas prove useful, thank God.

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