Beneath the lamplight in the living room of my youth, my sisters and I knelt in front of our mother. She said the familiar words, “Our father, who art in heaven,” and then she paused so we could repeat them.
We were not yet 5 years old, our slight bodies clad in thin cotton pajamas.
We must have been an angelic sight, especially to visiting friends, whose presence did not interrupt this routine.
Phrase by phrase, we repeated the words to the Lord’s Prayer, as we had and would until we knew it by heart. I don’t remember ever not knowing the Lord’s Prayer, which testifies to my mother’s success in her endeavor.
This is how we learned every prayer, and how we learned to pray.
I think about this as we once again visit the political issue of school prayer.
I certainly favor prayer, and believe, as do many, that religion is essential in child raising.
But a required moment of silence or prayer in schools will not, in my opinion, affect the morals of our children. The idea that it can seems naive.
I am just old enough to remember circling a flagpole at my elementary school to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and a short prayer.
There was nothing unpleasant or unusual about this ritual; it was, I’m sure, just one of the things we did at school.
The prayer had little meaning, and had I not come from a religious family, it would have been an empty gesture.
It was harmless, however - and I would agree that basic, simple required school prayers or moments of silence also would be harmless simply because they would be so ineffective.
In this way, I am not an impassioned opponent to school prayer.
But religion to me was my family and my church. It was the rushing around on Sunday mornings getting ready for Mass. It was my mother saying a rosary, my father making special corsages for Easter. We were Catholic, and religion meant catechism every Saturday, ashes on our forehead every Ash Wednesday, the solemn, bride-like First Communion ceremony, studying for confirmation in fourth grade.
Religion also was my grandmother, who had a picture of the baby Jesus that always fascinated me. Her home was filled with crucifixes, rosaries and Bibles. She went to church every morning. She took me to see “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and whispered the familiar lines right along with Peter O’Toole.
All of my cousins were Catholic, just like us. We all went to Mass. We all went to confession. We all prayed.
Religion also was, of course, our own little church and its priests.
It was midnight Mass, incense, priests who smiled nicely, nuns who scolded not so nicely. I learned some Latin, the sign of the cross, the sacraments.
As I grew older, religion became more than memorized words and following custom. It was asking God to help me or to forgive me.
When I learned what “nuclear war” meant during the Cuban missile crisis, I prayed long and hard - and it helped me through that black time.
When I became a hormone-dominated teenager, my mother sternly reminded me that premarital sex was a sin and that getting pregnant out of wedlock was a disgrace. That helped, too.
As a parent 30 years later, I do not expect the public schools to perform the task that is, and can only be, mine and that of my church.
If we do a good enough job, my children will pray in school when they want to, just as I did; they will learn that religion lives within, not without; no one can take it away.
It’s a big job, instilling children an understanding of a deity, of the importance of prayer, and the right way to live. It’s also my job, my responsibility as a parent. If I don’t fulfill this role, 100 prayers in school will not make up for it.
But I believe that I will succeed, as did my own parents. Perhaps those so intent on school prayer do not have that confidence.