Like many people in the San Francisco Bay Area, my spirituality is a hodgepodge of various traditions, custom-tailored along the lines of ordering Chinese takeout: pick one practice/belief from column A, two from column B, one from column C, and so on. I am sure this—among roughly a million other realities of my life—gives my very Catholic mother fits. But she might be happy to know that there is one particular practice I can trace directly back to my Catholic upbringing. That is our family’s version of prayer.
If there’s one thing Catholics are good at, it’s categories and grouping. Check out any Catholic resource and it can tell you the saint’s day, liturgical season (with appropriate vestment colors), day of obligation (which now I believe are more like days of recommendation), and other connected obligations/recommendations such as fasting or abstinence for any day of the calendar, from now till 1,000 years in the future. Not to mention seven sacraments—and their evil twin, seven deadly sins—three cardinal virtues, five decades of the rosary, and 14 stations of the cross. (We can’t take credit for the 10 Commandments, although I assume that was God’s way of testing out how this whole numbered-system thing was going to play out.)
As far as prayer goes, in the Catholic tradition, there are five types: prayers of praise, love, contrition, thanksgiving, and petition. While I personally have spent more hours than I care to remember asking for forgiveness for one failing or another—especially since becoming a father—with the boys I decided to focus on columns D and E: saying thanks, and asking for what you want or need, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else.
In practice, our thanksgiving prayer looks like this: Every night at dinner, we join hands and go around the table, with each person saying something he is thankful for. This could be general such as food or health or a good day, or a specific thing that happened—getting accepted to college (Daveon), landing a triple salchow (Mark), being told that the roaster was out of his favorite coffee beans, and then finding that they had one bag left (Dad). Even with Daveon away at school, this is one tradition that Mark and I faithfully (no pun intended) carry on. And when friends and family join us for dinner, they join our ritual of thanks also.
The “petition prayer” ritual has faded away, but when we were all under one roof and subscribed to roughly the same bedtime, it went this way: Just before bed, as part of our check-in about the day, each person would list anyone they wanted to pray for, as well as anything they wanted to ask for. The “pray fors” could be anyone in our family or friendship circle in general; people we know who could use a little extra thought because of illness, a loss, or other challenge; or folks in need on a larger scale such as disaster victims. The “ask fors” were wide-open, as I encouraged the boys that it’s OK to ask for anything they want, and not to be afraid to feel a little “selfish” at this time.
We say/said all three prayers in a non-specific way: “Thank you for …,” “I want to pray for …,” “I want to ask for …” From my perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the boys conceive of this as praying to a being or spirit, or just putting the energy out into the world. What does matter to me is cultivating a) a spirit of gratitude—because really, for all the struggle they went through, all three of us have so very very much to be grateful for—and b) an understanding that the good words and requests we express to the universe have the power to bring about real changes or results in people’s lives. Our rituals have also reinforced that we should remember the people we care about and who care about us, and that it is a good and important thing to ask for things on our own behalf. Regardless of what traditions they embrace or reject moving forward, I hope that these core principles will stick with them and become integrated in their beliefs and practices.