This article is adapted from 77 Ways to Pray for Your Kids.
Meditation is one of the three “expressions of prayer” described by the Catechism (the others are vocal prayer and Contemplative Prayer).
Vocal prayer is usually the first way kids learn to pray as they begin to imitate and repeat the meal prayer, prayers during Mass, or prayers they memorize. As they grow older, kids (hopefully) learn to express their thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires in spontaneous prayers to God.
But too many kids are never introduced to meditative or contemplative forms of prayer, which is too bad, because then they miss out on the many fruits of those prayer forms. When those kids grow up, they may seek a deeper spirituality in other religious traditions without realizing that their Catholic faith has its own ancient tradition of meditation, contemplation, and mystical prayer.
Meditation is a prayerful quest for God “engaging thought, imagination, emotion, and desire” (Catechism #2723). We go out and seek God, usually by focusing our thoughts on some object: a Scripture text (as in lectio divina and imaginative prayer), a mystery of faith (as in the rosary), sacred art (such as a sacred icon), or even the natural world. Prayerful meditation is different from intellectual study or analysis of the Scripture, artwork, mystery of faith, or whatever the object of meditation might be. It is different because its goal is not to understand, grasp, or intellectually “possess” the object, but to use it as a sort of doorway through which one passes in order to meet God.
Contemplative prayer sometimes flows out of meditative prayer. If meditative prayer is about actively seeking God by meditating on something holy, then contemplative prayer might be described as letting God seek us. In contemplative prayer, we quiet our thoughts and become open and receptive to God’s presence.
Parents are sometimes daunted by the prospect of teaching their kids meditative and contemplative prayer. For starters, both forms of prayer usually involve being still and quiet, which isn’t most kids’ strong point. Also, parents can easily evaluate the quality of their kids’ vocal prayers; not so with meditative and contemplative prayer.
The good news is that it is possible for kids to learn these “quieter” forms of prayer. The Catholic Diocese of Townsville, Australia, offers a comprehensive website on teaching meditation and contemplation to children; check it out at cominghome.org.au. It offers ample evidence that it is possible to teach kids these important forms of prayer.
It’s also possible to evaluate your kids’ meditation experience by processing with them afterward. During this processing you can share your experience and invite your child to share his or hers. You can also coach your child. Don’t expect overnight proficiency, and don’t worry about “off” days. For the first few months or years (depending on the child), you may have more “strikes” than “hits.” Just remember that even if your child’s meditative prayer looks fruitless, you are planting seeds that may sprout down the road in their life.
A Simple Process for Meditation
The meditation that follows is a method that has been practiced by Christian masters of prayer throughout the history of the Church. For other methods of meditation, see our articles on Lectio Divina, Imaginative Prayer, and Meditation on Sacred Art, as well as the Rosary.
Plan on meditating for about five minutes with younger children (beginning about age five) and fifteen minutes with older children and teens.
- If your family is new to Christian meditation, briefly describe it and preview these steps.
- Invite your family to choose an invocation, or a holy word or phrase, to silently repeat throughout the meditation (see Invocations: Super-short Prayers for When Life Gets Crazy). Or suggest the invocation: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
- Invite your family to assume a comfortable (but respectful) posture, and to relax their bodies and minds.
- Begin with a Call to Prayer such as thirty seconds of silence, a bell, the sign of the cross, or the Lasallian prayer of presence.
- Use these or similar words to begin the period of meditation.
Let’s close our eyes and begin our meditation.
Silently repeat the invocation in your heart. It may help to picture God, or Jesus.
If you realize that you have stopped saying your invocation because your mind has wandered from your prayer, don’t worry. Simply begin saying the invocation again.
If you feel engulfed in the presence of God, you may feel prompted to stop saying your invocation. That’s okay; just give yourself over to God’s presence.
We’ll meditate for about __ minutes; I will let you know when our time of prayer is finished.
- At the end of your period of prayer, close with a short prayer of thanksgiving and the Sign of the Cross.
9 more ways to do meditative prayer
There are many different ways to do meditative prayer, and you might want to introduce your child to several different forms. With older kids and teens, offer a short explanation of meditative prayer each time you try it, so that over time they begin to get a deep understanding of what they’re aiming for. More spiritually mature kids might also benefit from hearing short readings from the saints and mystics about meditative prayer.
Here are a few strategies for meditative prayer that you can try with kids of any age; click through to the article (if available) for ways to adapt the method for children.
Daily examen. The daily examen is a prayerful meditation that focuses on how God was present in the events of the day—and how we responded to God’s presence. It’s a hugely valuable prayer for spiritual growth. “Highs and Lows” is a family-friendly way of adapting the daily examen to the dinner table.
Imaginative prayer. In Ignatian imaginative prayer, you prayerfully “enter” a particular scene from the Bible, using your imagination to interact with the people and environment and in many cases, entering into conversation with God or someone who speaks for God. It’s a powerful form of meditation especially suited for children.
Eucharistic adoration. Eucharistic adoration is a form of meditative prayer in itself, and many people spend part of their time during Eucharistic adoration meditating on sacred reading as well. Yes, you can take kids to Eucharistic adoration! In addition to reading about strategies for doing Eucharistic adoration with kids, you might want to also read about Heidi Indahl’s experience doing Eucharistic adoration with an infant and Becky Arganbright’s experience of praying for a home within biking distance to Eucharistic adoration.
Lectio divina. Lectio divina is an ancient way of praying with sacred reading, especially Scripture. In addition to the main lectio divina article, you may be interested in reading about bite-sized biblical prayers, sacred story time, and answering the questions Jesus asks.
Meditate on sacred art. Meditating on sacred art is an especially good introduction to imaginative meditation for children.
Meditate in nature. Sometimes Christians are wary of nature-related prayer because of the connection to New Age practices as well as the well-worn trope that “nature is my Church.” However, many, many saints extol the natural world as another “book” that reveals God to us. Click through to the article for ways to place this type of meditation within a Catholic context.
Rosary. The rosary is probably the single most familiar way of doing meditative prayer. However, in order for it to be a fruitful form of meditation for your kids, you will need to emphasize contemplation of the mysteries. Praying a Scriptural rosary can help in this regard, as can praying the rosary with sacred art (see The Illuminated Rosary for an excellent resource).
Stations of the cross. The stations of the cross are yet another form of meditative prayer familiar to most Catholic families. Click through to the article for ideas about how to adapt it for children.
Sung prayer. Song can be a form of meditation, depending on the music and the attitude of the singers. “Silly Songs with Larry” is not exactly meditative; instead, look for simple, repetitive liturgical music or praise and worship music. You might also explore Taize.
Contemplative prayer is one of the three “expressions of prayer” described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the others are Vocal Prayer and Meditative Prayer). Contemplative prayer is a simple resting in the love of Christ. Rather than taking the initiative (as with vocal prayer and meditation), contemplative prayer is about silencing ourselves so God can work in us. “In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit ‘that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith’ and we may be ‘grounded in love’ (Ephesians 3:16-17)” (Catechism 2714). St. Thérèse of Lisieux described contemplative prayer as a close sharing between friends, while St. John Vianney described it as gazing at Christ and allowing Christ to gaze at us.
Theresa of Avila famously described her experience of contemplative prayer in this way:
“When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, or sometimes even when reading, I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God, of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him. This was in no sense a vision: I believe it is called mystical theology. The soul is suspended in such a way that it seems to be completely outside itself. The will loves; the memory, I think, is almost lost; while the understanding, I believe, though it is not lost, does not reason—I mean that it does not work, but is amazed at the extent of all it can understand; for God wills it to realize that it understands nothing of what his majesty represents to it. This is a favor neither wholly of sense, nor wholly of spirit, but entirely the gift of God.”
Contemplation may not seem suited to wiggly, squirmy, eye-rolling, “Are-we-done-yet?” kids. But this intimate basking in Christ’s love is something kids deserve to know about. Even if they aren’t mature enough to fully enter into the experience, being exposed to the practice might lead them to try it later in life. And they might just surprise you—after all, Jesus did tell his disciples to “let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14).
How can you practice contemplative prayer as a family? Because
it is a gift, it is not something you can “do.” But you can make your children aware of what it is, and you can create conditions that are
favorable to entering contemplative prayer. Generally, contemplative prayer begins with and emerges from meditation. (See Meditative Prayer for Catholic Kids: 10 Ways to Get Started.) You may also find it helpful to light a candle, display an icon of Jesus, or take your children to Eucharistic adoration.
Here are more strategies to try with your kids.
With younger kids, focus on modeling prayerful silence, e.g., “Mom and Dad are going to be quiet to listen to God now. You be quiet, too, and listen to what God (or Jesus, or the angels) might be saying to you”—and then close your eyes and really pray quietly for a minute or so. Ignore their chatter and noise (it might help to strap them into a high chair first!). Your goal with very young children is to simply model this form of prayer. With enough repetition, even very young children will eventually begin to imitate your example. In the meantime, this moment of silent resting in God’s presence might just become a refreshing “reset button” that makes it easier to deal with your kids patiently.
Older Children and Teens
With older children, try contemplation for increasingly longer periods of time: three minutes, then five, then ten, and fifteen minutes or longer for teens who have more training with this spiritual exercise. When first beginning this practice, their goal might be to simply maintain an attitude of quiet alertness.
Here is one way to teach older and children contemplative prayer:
1. Prepare. If you are able, create a prayerful environment by lighting a candle or striking a bell (see Smells and Bells).
2. Listening to “sheer silence.” Explain to your children that contemplative prayer is all about creating a space inside of ourselves to meet the loving presence of Jesus. This involves a quieting of our minds and an alert attentiveness to God’s presence. As an example, you might read this passage about the prophet Elijah waiting for the presence of the Lord:
[The Lord] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
3. Enter contemplation via meditation. Even people who have long experience with contemplative prayer rarely enter directly into it—it’s not like flipping a light switch. Many people find it helpful to enter contemplation via meditation. For instance, your children might choose a sentence or phrase to occasionally repeat interiorly to help them focus on Jesus, or to call on the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Another technique involves focusing on a mental picture of Jesus—perhaps even in a peaceful setting. See Meditative Prayer for more ideas.
4. Let go of outcomes. As much as possible, spend the time praying rather than monitoring your kids’ prayerfulness . . . and don’t worry too much about results. Focus on simply introducing them to this spiritual exercise; the invitation to contemplative prayer may be one they respond to at a time of conversion or crisis later in life.
Besides trying this type of prayer during your family prayer time, you can suggest that older children practice contemplative prayer after receiving the Eucharist, during Eucharistic Adoration, or before falling asleep.
Christian Meditation for Young People: This is a comprehensive website from the Catholic Diocese of Townsville (Australia), which has been teaching meditation and contemplation to children for years. See especially Stations of Contemplation and Children, a resource originally used at World Youth Day in 2008. You may also be interested in the Catholic FAQ, which addresses questions Catholics may have about meditation and contemplation.