One of the best books to come my way this Lent is Father James Martin’s best seller, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.  I will review it in full in a few weeks when I have completed it, but what I have experienced so far has touched me deeply during this Lenten season and brought me back to the roots of my own childhood spirituality.
Early in his book Father Martin recalls his first experiences with the mystical as a boy. Riding his bike through a meadow one day, he stopped to look around. “All around me was so much life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge not only to be a part of it, but also to know it and somehow possess it. I felt loved, held, understood. The desire for everything, somehow for a full incorporation into the universe, and a desire to understand what I was doing here on earth filled me. It wasn’t a vision. I was still looking at the meadow. I hadn’t ‘left myself.’ And as a boy, I don’t think I would have been able to describe it as I just did. But I knew something had happened: it was as if my heart had stopped and I was given a conscientious inkling of the depths of my own desire for…what?” [p. 23]
The above cited passage stirred an early memory in my own childhood, probably about the age of four. We were living in an apartment over my grandparents’ house in East Buffalo, in the early 1950’s a green paradise of countless elm trees [later destroyed by Dutch Elm Disease]. Buffalo summers are alive with robins and their distinctive early morning and dusk distinctive song. My mother told me that the robins were singing their morning and evening prayers to God, which made a considerable impression on me. Consequently, in the still of sunset I would sit quietly in my bedroom with my face pressed to the window screen, taken up the robins’ medley, captivated by their tune and the stillness of the trees. It was my first sense of “purposeful quiet” and even these many years later I can still listen to a robin with an intuitive sense of home.
Father Martin believes that many of us in childhood have such transcendental moments of awareness that, truthfully, constitute an awareness of the beyond that is the essence of prayer. He is too kind to say it, but I have the impression that organized religion, with its stress upon routine, business, order, and correctness in its faith formation of children somehow squashes that early union of loving detachment, play, and comfort. My first communion at age 8 was such a ritual production that I decided to get up early the next morning and attend the sunrise Mass by myself with the handful of elderly and blue-collar workers, to receive the Eucharist without distraction and talk to Jesus in my own way. I consider that to be my true First Communion. I was struck this Lent by Father Martin’s observation that “children may be more open than adults to experiencing God, because they are not as burdened with as many expectations about prayer.” [p. 23]
As I guess happens to many of us who progress through church life, the structure of the thing does not allow much attention to spontaneous, unstructured joy. I found this to be true in the seminary, where there were many scheduled prayers but little or no direction on how to cultivate or attain that inner connectedness to the mysterious, or even respect for the possibility of it. For all my high school years my only real source of detached meditation was a copy of The Imitation of Christ which I had received from a relative as a gift. I used to read it after receiving communion after repeated failures to generate my own sense of “talking to Jesus.”
In college I did get one insight about prayer that has remained with me as it resonated with childhood experience. I was assigned Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels  in a philosophy course at Catholic University. Berger was a sociologist in search of divine experience in the common life of man. One of his “clues” [i.e., “rumors” of angels] is the experience of play. As he describes play, it is an experience of disconnect from the world of hard reality and death, and it is children who are particularly good at it. In the true experience of play, the participant[s] lose touch with time and space and enter a dimension of detachment.
I always felt sorry for kids on my street who “had to be home at 5 PM” on fear of punishment. In my own case my outside play was curtained only by the site of my dad’s car in the driveway at dinner or nautical twilight at night [and when my mother put a bright lamp in the living room window, we could play Monopoly on the porch if no one noticed how late it was getting.] Childhood play is escape into another true reality. Being with inseparable friends is timeless. In this sense the relationship of playing to praying is uncanny, and I suspect that deprivation of one is deprivation of the other. Mental health professionals are right to wonder how the Covid epidemic has impacted children.
There are many ways to pray, of course. Liturgy is the supreme act of prayer in the Church. Liturgy, particularly the Eucharist, is play in the way that the great Greek dramas lifted audiences out of time and space into a new world that Aristotle defined with the word catharsis, a draining of the emotions. [Catharsis: the first time I saw “The Godfather” in a theater, I could not find my car for fifteen minutes after leaving the theater.] The reason why young people [and the not-so-young] find Sunday Mass a chore is because we celebrate it not with the escape of catharsis but with the grim determination of miners.
It is worth remembering Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” My hunch is that heaven will be a playful place.
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