“Mr. Braithwaite, today I want to pray for my mom because she took my phone last night and I was really bored and I pray that she gives me my phone back tonight.”
A quick follow-up: “I also want to pray that she gets her phone back because I tried to call her ten times last night and she didn’t answer and I didn’t know her mom took her phone.”
I start all of my math classes with prayer and virtually every day one of the girls prays that technology will be returned to them. Or else, new technology is desired: “I pray that my dad realizes that I really deserve an iPhone 12 for my birthday.”
The boys’ focus is a little bit different. Someone usually prays “that tonight our Fortnite campaign will win by reaching level 150,” before rattling off his classmates’ sophomoric usernames.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started my classes with a freeform prayer. I recalled my own 10th grade English class, when such open-ended petitions could sometimes ratchet into endless lists of pleas to God. “Please save the oceans, and the polar bears, and the rainforests, and the dolphins…” On and on my classmates would go until a large portion of class time had been eaten up.
Prayer is different in Jesuit communities, where the petitions at Mass are also open for additions from the congregation. People have usually asked us to pray for them, and we focus on the difficult pregnancies and cancer diagnoses and lengthy job searches of the people in our lives. It’s an unspoken rule that we pray for those dramatically in need both outside and inside our communities.
With my seventh graders, I hear something I don’t think I’ve ever heard among Jesuits.
“Today, I want to pray for myself.”
Their reasons for praying for themselves range from the sacred to the profane. Students have prayed for themselves because they’re angry about a mean text message a classmate sent and also because they spilled a big cup of soda yesterday afternoon. They’ve needed prayers because they spent all night on the toilet after eating too many cookies and because they’re really hungry that morning. One girl prayed for her brother because his showers are too long and another because his room is too messy. They’ve prayed to receive new phones and to win in Among Us 1 and not to get in too much trouble when they get home tonight. These twelve and thirteen-year olds seem to understand, intuitively, that God is interested in every part of their day.
And unlike Jesuits (and many other adults) I know, they are unashamed in telling God exactly what they want.
As Fr. Jim Martin, SJ likes to remind us, “Advent is all about desire.” God took on human flesh and understands that our days are full of regular everyday hopes and dreams and fears.
As a Jesuit, others frequently invite me to carry the struggles of their life with them. I’ve been asked to pray for friends-of-friends going through agonizingly slow deaths, for families rent asunder by a daughter coming out of the closet, for addicts whom rehab never seems to help. I love to pray for these people during Mass and during my own personal prayer. Sometimes this intense outward focus can blind me to my own needs.
In the face of such immense pain, who am I to ask for God’s help?
Sure, I might be exhausted from the pandemic, or frustrated that I can’t control a math class, or anxious about the election, but that all pales in comparison to everyone I’m praying for. What my students have taught me, though, is that behind this faux-humility is my false belief that I can probably resolve my exhaustion or frustration or anxiety by myself. I’ll give myself a self-care day or study a classroom management technique or quit Twitter for a week and all will be well. No need to ask God’s help! In sharp contrast, one of my students prayed for herself because she’s frustrated and embarrassed and upset about the fact that it takes her two hours to wash ten dishes (she timed herself the night before).
After three months praying with a bunch of twelve-year olds, I find I’m adopting their shamelessness in praying for myself.
“Dear God, I pray for myself not to look at Instagram too much today.”
“Dear God, I pray for myself to love this student better.”
“Dear God, I pray for myself to remember that the election is in your hands.”
This Sunday, we’ll hear about Gabriel coming to visit Mary in Nazareth. He’ll let her know that she will be the means through which God enters the world. As you know, she accepts quickly, without much hesitation.
As I pray with the Annunciation, I envision the seventh graders I teach everyday. Mary was just about their age when Gabriel came to visit. Like my students, Mary intuitively grasped that God was actively working in the world. Like them, I’m sure she knew that she could bring all her wants and desires before the Lord.
As I near the end of Advent and the great feast of Christmas, I look to a whole host of twelve- and thirteen-year olds to bring me closer to those essential desires. God wants to hear about the mundane and sublime realities of my daily life. Do I have the humility to offer them to him?