Baby Steps

Finding New Ways to Pray

My fifteen-month-old son’s favorite game is “run into Mommy’s room and grab things out of her nightstand before she catches me.” As soon as I set him on his feet at the top of the stairs, he bolts down the hall, giggling, and by the time I’ve finished fastening the baby gate behind me he’s fleeing the scene of the crime, clutching his contraband. When I catch him and pry open his little fists I find ballpoint pens, a wristwatch, my glasses, and his favorite: my rosary. Well, I think, at least someone’s using it.

The last time I actually prayed using that or any other rosary was fifteen months ago, the night before Marty was born. It’s a beautiful crystal rosary engraved with my great-grandmother’s name, and when I was pregnant I prayed the Joyful Mysteries with some intensity. Then I had the baby, and while the affective connection to the BVM continued, any form of prayer involving sustained contemplation became a distant memory. I think of all those images of the Annunciation where the young Mary is surprised by Gabriel as she sits quietly reading her Psalms. Enjoy that while it lasts, the angel seems to be saying.

I know I’m not the first to discover that entering a new state of life requires learning new ways to pray. At first, of course, I spent a lot of time nursing and rocking the baby, and I hopefully tucked a (less precious) rosary in the pocket of the rocking chair to take advantage of those quiet moments. But in my sleep-deprived state I tended to nod off by the end of the Our Father. Eventually Marty dug the rosary out and used it as a teether. He handed it back to me one day minus the crucifix and a few beads—which, after some panicked searching, turned up on the carpet and not, as I feared, in his stomach. I had more success using my monthly missal to read the day’s scriptures as we rocked, until Marty started reaching behind his head to grab the book out of my hands.

At about that time I came across a painting of Madonna and Child by Gerard David that struck me as refreshingly realistic. Mary, holding her curly-headed boy, looks down at a prayer book on the ledge in front of her. Jesus, meanwhile, looks out at the viewer as he tugs on a coral rosary draped around his neck. There is, experts say, significance to the placement of his fingers—the right hand holding an “Our Father” bead, the left hand marking out four “Hail Marys”—but what I see is a grabby baby who thinks all his mother’s accessories are toys, and a mother hoping he’ll amuse himself just long enough for her to squeeze in a prayer or two. The baby Jesus looks calmly triumphant, just like my son when I surrender whatever fascinating necklace I might be wearing. Mary looks almost wry.

My mistake, I think, is in trying to pray as something other than a mother of an infant. Everything about me, physically and mentally, is caught up in caring for this energetic child. On those rare occasions when I can slip away to Mass without him, I feel as though I’ve forgotten something. If I’m going to pray at all it will have to be from where I am now—which is chasing after a toddler. When I place myself in God’s presence, the baby will be there, too.

These days we have a new prayer routine, Marty and I. He still likes to nurse before he goes to sleep, and when we settle down in the chair, I say, “Let’s say our prayers.” He hears the familiar words of the sign of the cross and nestles in contentedly. Including him in my prayer has brought me back to basics—simple, out-loud prayers and petitions for the people we love. For me, it’s less stressful and more rewarding than a frustrated attempt at contemplation. For him, it’s a lullaby and a lesson.

A few days ago I was taking him out of his car seat, running late as usual for wherever we needed to be. As I lifted him out of the car, he clapped his hands together as if in prayer. “A-mah, a-mah,” he was saying—“Amen.” I turned to follow his gaze. We’d parked in front of a church, and there on the lawn was a statue of Mary, her arms outspread, inviting us to pray. Marty wanted to make sure I saw.

Published in the 2012-12-21 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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