7 Steps to building a strong family prayer life

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Not going to be watching anything on that set anymore.

So your family all watches TV and then goes to bed. Maybe your family hasn’t prayed together since Aunt Lucy was in the hospital? You want to change that and bring the family together to pray but do not know how to? Maybe you just want to pray more routinely? Well this  listicle blog is for you.

If you are like most Americans who watch 5 hours or more of television every day TV might be a major roadblock. But tossing the TV out the window, you might think is a good place to start, it probably won’t be. If your goal is to get rid of the TV and replace that time with prayer,  you need to ease television out of your life and gradually add in a little bit of prayer. Then one day you will look at the television and say to yourself, gosh when was the last time I turned that thing on? Then feel free to toss it out the window or at least kick it out to the curb.

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We all have an infinite hunger, a piece that can never be filled.

Here it is in a nutshell: The fact is something is missing; you have a hole in you – we all do – and that hole is bottomless. We try to put things into that hole.  For some of us it is watching sports, others it is television programs, for many it is sadly pornography. But all those finite things we put into a bottomless hole! The only way to fill that hole is with the infinite, and only God is infinite! You place God into that hole by engaging in the sacramental life and through regular devout prayer. Participating in the sacramental life means regularly going to confession and regular attendance of Mass. A routine devout prayer life fills in the rest of the gaps and means you set aside time(s) each day to pray.

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Our simple family prayer corner.

This is my guide to praying with the family every night: you can do it by yourself if you live alone or with your spouse and/or children. For my family it has gone over very well with my little kids. They are transfixed by the fire of the candle we light when we pray, and are not afraid to chime in when there is time to ask for blessings or thank God for things that occurred or they saw during the day.

Step One: run to the grocery store! In most grocery stores placed with the exotic Latin American foods there are always – either on the top or bottom shelf – these weird candles with Saints,  Jesus and/or Mary pictures on them. They are cheap… incredibly cheap! They are usually week votive candles, meaning they will burn for 188 hours or more! At a dollar store they will cost you $2-3 or less and at the grocer they will probably be about the same cost. They are almost always not scented so you don’t have to worry about allergies. I think you want to use these for a couple of reasons. It supports the people that make these religious candles which is a valiant profession to be involved in. The candles when not lined on a shelf and stand on their own are usually quite beautiful. Unlike the scented candles, these candles really are very obvious that they are set aside for holy things.

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Why else does every grocery store have these on the shelf?

Step Two: bring the candle(s) to Mass and afterwords get the candles blessed by your priest. If there is a lot of time between buying the candles and getting blessed it is OK to start praying at night, but getting the candles blessed marks them as holy and special; specifically set aside for God. This candle for its life will be a centering location for your family to rally around in prayer.

Pro-Tip: plan next February 2nd to have candles for the year (including the next year’s Advent candles) already purchased for blessing.  This date is the Feast of the Presentation, sometimes referred to as the Candlemass.  Many parishes invite parishioners to bring candles to this Mass around this feast for blessing on a side table at the beginning or conclusion during Mass.

Step Three: set a time and place to pray. If you have little children you should pray together just before the youngest child’s bed time. Always give yourself plenty of time, so even if you are just starting and going to say one quick prayer, allow for double the time! If it is just you and your wife, I could think of 3 times to pray: after dinner, at dusk, or before bed. As for a location, any table or place that is free from distractions will be good. Talk about it, and make sure everyone knows what time family prayer time is.

Step Four: pick the prayers. As with anything start off simple. If all you can remember is the Our Father and the Hail Mary, then do that. I recommend starting with just an Our Father anyways, building up other prayers later. Discuss the ‘format’ with spouses, and if children are old enough to comprehend then explain it to them before hand.  Always leave time for thanksgiving and intentions. In our family when intentions come up, we always ask the children what they are thankful for to encourage them to not be afraid to speak up. Start short and simple and get a set pattern of nightly prayer and then add to the prayer as everyone becomes more comfortable with family night time prayer together. Here are a few recommendations for you to ease into nightly family prayer, start with the basics and build up over time:

Starter Basic Prayers:

  1. Sign of the Cross
  2. Our Father
  3. Everyone states something they are thankful for, and any special intentions.
  4. Sign of the Cross

Midterm Prayers:

  1. Sign of the Cross
  2. Our Father
  3. Everyone asks for a special intention
  4. Hail Mary, Glory Be
  5. Everyone states something they are thankful for
  6. “We ask this through Christ our Lord…”, Sign of the Cross

Deeper Prayers:

  1. Sign of the Cross
  2. Our Father
  3. Special Prayer (use prayer cards, everyone works on memorizing the prayer together)
  4. Special intentions
  5. Hail Mary & Glory Be
  6. Everyone states something they are thankful for
  7. “We ask all these things in Christ our Lord who reins for ever and ever…”, Sign of the Cross

Step Five: get everyone involved.

Little children; sometimes you get started and cranky children are screaming bloody murder. (like every family wedding you have ever taken them to) When this happens it is OK to send them to bed with a quick Our Father after placing them in bed. My oldest son at about 18 months would not go to bed without lighting the candle and praying, it would break his routine, he absolutely had to have it. (You don’t know how much I pray that he is always like that.)

Teenagers; if you are starting this late in your family, teens are going to be a challenge. Do not turn family prayer time into something that is either demanded or a reward. Try to make it something that is normal, which may be hard to develop into a habit. Always kindly invite them to join you in prayer; forcing someone to pray with you will have little effect. The nights they do not join you in prayer, ask them if they have an intention they would like you to pray for; friends, school, sports. Teens always have things they are worried about, and as long as you are friendly, sincere, and actually do care, they will entrust you with intentions. If they are upset and rebellious, make sure you pray for them if they do not join you, as well as for their special un-named intention. Chances are they are upset with something that involves deep emotions or complicated relationships and need that prayer badly.

Spouses; Sometimes one spouse is busy, maybe a husband is working under a car or a wife is busy working on a project. One of the reasons I recommend such a short format is sometimes really important things are happening, and prayer time doesn’t need to be hours long and we always have time to give a few minutes to God. Never nag your spouse to pray, everyone has bad days or things that sometimes they can’t ignore for a few minutes once they start. Like the sulking teenager: ask for a prayer intention and make sure you pray for them.

Step Six: pray. Pull out the candle, and find a regular place to pray, light it before you go to gather the family. When they show up the candle will already be burning, inviting them to pray. Of course shut out all distractions, turn off computers and televisions, turn off the lights, even if there is still sunlight out. The father of the house should lead the prayer, even if the mother has to remind or encourage the father. Often, in summer, I will be working outside as bed time draws near and my wife stroll out and say, ‘Its almost bed time, want to come in and get ready to pray.’ It is a pleasant reminder as my role as head of the household when she says it that way. At the conclusion of the prayer, children that do not misbehave, may take turns each night blowing out the candle. The flame, much like the glow of the screen will capture a small child’s attention, and it can be something you offer as a reward before hand, ‘hey isn’t it your turn to blow out the candle tonight’. Just like blowing out birthday candles only multiple times a week!

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Christmas Eve last year.

A note about Advent; the Sunday after Thanksgiving (In the Untied States) is the first Sunday of Advent, the tradition of burning candles and praying is often encouraged during this 4 week long liturgical season. For my family this is how we started praying at nights as a family. The practice quickly caught on as a regular nightly activity, and with the cooperation and encouragement of my wife it has developed into our nightly custom.

Step Seven: down the rabbit hole!  Remember the hole that is inside us is an infinite hole. Praying with your family will strengthen the bond to each other. When friends visit and prayer time comes up, invite them to join you. Pass out prayer cards for them to join in, or if they are not religious, give them a brief overview and ask them to silently observe. Sometimes we find ourselves away from home or in transit at prayer time, we don’t break tradition, and we still pray all buckled in our car seats. As time goes on, build a prayer corner in your home. You can acquire beautiful things for your prayer corner; linen, pictures, statues, crucifixes and incense that you burn on special feasts and solemnities. Here is a book on building a prayer corner.

Before, I gave three examples of formats that each one builds on the last.  For adults this most likely will not be enough prayer to fill an adult God-shaped hole. In fact it is enough that I hope you will grow a taste for more prayer. My wife sticks to more rote prayer, and most nights after family prayer and the youngest go to bed we will say a rosary with the older children. For me I have received spiritual direction to say the liturgy of the hours at night, and the nights we don’t say a rosary are filled with Vespers(evening) or Compline(night). If you want to say the liturgy of the hours I recommend getting the Laudate app for your smartphone, it supplies links to daily liturgy of the hours.  Saying the same thing every night can become to routine, so we mix it up a little too: novenas can fill small spaces and bring new enlightenment, devotions to saints or the holy family can bring a deeper understanding and love for the whole body of the Church. Currently after prayer my family is trying to read ten or more paragraphs from the Catechism, so we even balance Catechesis with our prayers. We’ll have read or heard the whole thing in less than a year, but will most likely take a break during advent, lent, Christmas & Easter. The most important thing to remember is we don’t have to get stuck in a dull and boring prayer life. My family didn’t just start praying a full load of prayers and doing all this reading on day one. For us it wasn’t all natural to just jump into all of it, we had to build and let it grow on us diligently working day by day, forming a routine that we love and can’t wait for each night.

Time: How much? I would say keep it short, anything over three minutes is a lot if you have kids. In fact 2 minutes is probably the norm for our family prayer. If you are doing something afterwords like a rosary or liturgy of the hours, 10-20 minutes is all they take depending on your tempo. It is nice to have long nights and short nights because sometimes you really need to tune-in to God more, and sometimes the day has been long and maybe you want to get to bed a little early. Compline (night time prayer) from the liturgy of the hours takes about 5 minutes and that is our lets go to bed prayers.

For some people the sacraments and a rosary a night is all they need to fill that God shaped hole. But there are so many devotions out there, you really may never be able to do them all in a lifetime.  There is no need to do the same thing every night. My family will pray that this helps you or maybe encourages you to try to pray more with your family!

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