I know Jesus said that unless we become like children, we’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). Fulton J. Sheen in The Eternal Galilean was speaking of heaven when he wrote: “No old people enter it…. There are only nurseries there!” But surely neither of them was talking about the two-year-old who is having a tantrum on the grocery store floor, nor the three-year-old who refuses to get dressed so you throw him completely naked into a snowsuit and hope it doesn’t somehow get unzipped while you’re out running errands (hypothetically speaking). Whether we call it being stubborn, strong-willed, or spirited, I doubt that’s the childlike quality Christ is looking for when he welcomes us into heaven!
If you’ve ever tried to pick up a toddler who did not want to be picked up, you might have noticed that they usually respond in one of two totally opposite ways: they either go completely rigid, so that you’re left handling a 35-pound awkwardly shaped (crying and flailing) solid object, or they go totally boneless, leaving you jostling with a loose assortment of slack limbs that seem to slip right through your arms into a limp pile on the floor. And if you think about it, don’t we sometimes approach prayer in exactly the same two ways?
In the past, I have certainly been the rigid toddler in my prayer life. I think I’m “doing a good job” at my prayer life, as though it’s just another goal to hit or item to check off my list. I “say my prayers”, fulfill my commitments, tick the box and off I go on with my day. If God has anything to say to me when I’m in rigid toddler mode – inflexible and unbending in what I want to do, pray and accomplish – I’m certainly not hearing any of it.
And just as often, I’ve approached prayer too loosely. I check my phone before I begin and get distracted by emails or a social media wormhole. I read the Gospel, then get lost in thought about the upcoming day. I pick up the spiritual book I’ve been dying to read and charge ahead, reading three chapters without even a “good morning” to God. If He has something to say to me when I’m loose and wobbly in my prayer life, how will He ever get me to listen: I’m slipping out of His arms onto some other thought or activity.
Lately, I’ve been trying to approach prayer like the trusting and yielding child Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18. To prevent myself from being too loose, limp, and lazy in my prayer, I set my timer for 15 minutes as soon as I sit down to pray. This prevents me from wasting my time, reading this or that on my phone or in a book, and encourages me to stay on the task of reading and meditating on the Gospel. In order not to become too rigid, saying my prayers and reading the Gospel like they’re just items on a to-do list, I leave the last remaining minutes for Silence. This is where I consent: I consent to be moved, to be inspired, to be refreshed, to be fortified, to be spoken to, or even to be left, seemingly alone, in silence. This is where I allow God to pick me up.