The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

What goes on when we pray?

bokeh interior of modern lutheran, christian church

I find myself thinking about this seemingly simple question once again. This time it was prompted not by a student but an adult. Last month, Church Publishing released Common Prayer for Children and Families, a collection of daily liturgies and prayers for all sorts of occasions that Jenifer Gamber and I wrote together. A parent who saw the book congratulated me and then asked if there was an accompanying companion piece or a guide. She suggested that parents and teachers often need both prayers themselves and an additional resource to assist them in theologically explaining to children (and perhaps themselves) what is going on when we pray.

My initially thought was, ‘But prayer teaches itself. The best way to learn about it is to do it.’ While that notion does contain some truth, the more I thought about it the more I came to the conclusion that, if we want to maximize its value, the teaching of prayer should be approached in a manner akin to how we teach Scripture. We don’t merely read the Bible and leave it to speak for itself, we also explore it together—often times with academic rigor, artistic creativity, and physical enactment—to enhance both our understanding of what was read and our capacity to be transformed by God through that reading. What if schools, congregations, and families approached prayer in a similar fashion?

In hope of finding some inspiring ways of thinking about prayer and clarifying what’s happening during pray, I read Ashley Cocksworth’s excellent book Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed. At the heart of the book is an insight about prayer that struck me as revelation, which I had felt and known at an intuitive level but now, being conscious of this insight, I’ve had something of a transfiguration in my own experience of prayer and how I understand and explain what is going on. 

Expanding on the understanding of prayer as ‘a conversation’ with God, the insight is this: even before we talk to God in prayer, God is already speaking and having a conversation ‘in’ us. This follows the Episcopal tradition’s core belief in the presence of “Christ in all persons.” Whether or not I am aware of it or using a specifically Christian terminology, it is through ‘Christ within me’ (to borrow a phrase from St. Patrick’s prayer) that God is already speaking, already conversing, already praying. On this understanding, prayer does not start with our words but with practicing the presence of God and listening to the conversation already taking place deep within our souls.

Some standard entry points to prayer that help us to practice awareness of God’s presence include silence, music, body posture, breathing, lighting candles, gesturing, bowing, hand-clasping, the closing of eyes, the signing of oneself with a cross, the use of icons, a rosary, or incense to stimulate the bodily senses of sight, touch, or smell. The common factor throughout the practices just listed is that, prior to becoming a spoken conversation, they all underline that prayer is firstly an embodied conversation with God’s presence. This physical dimension of prayer is particularly important to emphasize for children, youth, and others with acute sensory lives.  

Once we become awake to Christ’s presence within us, and once we listen to what God is already saying, the Holy Spirit draws us into the Son’s eternal conversation with the Father. Thus, prayer incorporates us into the life of the Trinity.

Throughout this Lent, I pray that before you begin to speak in prayer, you’ll pause to practice the presence of God and listen for the eternal conversation God is already having within you. If patient enough, you may discover yourself echoing St. Augustine, saying God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” But you may also be surprised to already know some of the words to this conversation by heart—the words that Jesus prayed to the Father and taught us also to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, which are the same words Christ prays with us now, and the same words Christ has been praying within each of us since before we knew how to pray.

Schools are Real Places of Faith

As I write, I’ve just returned home from a candlelit prayer vigil at our school chapel. Two weeks ago, a student only in our Class of 2014 died, under as yet unknown though clearly tragic circumstances. I was contacted out of the blue by a former student who wished to organize a service for their friend in the chapel where they used to worship together. He sounded shy about asking, but when the school and I quickly embraced him and offered all we could to help, he was profoundly grateful that we were taking the time to respond to him with such enthusiasm. It was a small, simple, yet intimate opportunity to gather in the presence of God, in a place which was so much a center of spiritual, emotional and also collegial gravity for those friends. In a way, as one student remarked, it felt like “a home away from home.” Like a parish church, I suppose. Read More »

Explaining Jesus

“Hey! Who’s that?” shouts an excited three-year-old as he enters the church for the first time. He points again at the large Christus Rex (Christ the King) statute over the Altar and demands, “Who’s that?” Read More »

Third Grade Lessons for an Election Year

Welcome to 2020 – a leap year, a summer Olympics year, and a presidential election year. Are you nervous about the elections? Friends and colleagues with divergent political perspectives have expressed anxiety about the polarization in our shared civic life, especially for 2020. I have read blogs describing exhaustion from feeling like we are swimming in a sea of political and cultural hatred, and watched public figures give advice about how to talk to your intolerant relatives about politics. The funny thing is, folks from all parts of the political spectrum are making these same observations about feeling silenced, marginalized, and being branded as the other. My advice is to try to be more like a third grader. Read More »

New Year’s Revelations

For me, New Year’s resolutions always came with a sense of impending doom, as if I was being set up for failure. After all, how could I do something for a whole year? But soon after January 1 comes January 6, Epiphany. And Epiphany offers an opportunity that, to me, feels both profound and inspiring. Read More »

‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Is it my imagination or is Christmas coming earlier every year? The Great Pumpkin had not even appeared before – boom! – here comes Santa Claus. It seems that stores just can’t get the bows, ribbons, and wreaths on the shelves fast enough. Read More »


I recently had the opportunity to preach in our school’s annual Thanksgiving Eucharist. It is difficult, every year, to come up with new and striking ways of communicating a similar message, the message of gratitude. But this year I was fortunate to come across Diana Butler Bass’ excellent book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, which provided more than enough novelty for the occasion. Read More »

Finding Your Voice

I can remember with great clarity the moments in my young life when I had to speak in front of a group for the first time. It took so much courage to stand before adults and peers and play a witch in third grade. I can barely remember the “before” of that moment, however, and how scared I must have been. What has stayed with me is the exhilaration I felt when it was over and I heard from my parents and friends that I was convincing as a mean and terrible witch! I felt a kind of power that I would work to cultivate and hold in my growing self over many more years. Read More »

In Praise of Preschools

There are 515 Episcopal preschools listed in the NAES database. They range in size from about 30 to almost 300 students. Some are tucked away in the lower levels of parish halls while others occupy multi-story buildings. They include Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools, programs based in the best of developmentally appropriate practices, and an increasing number with outdoor classrooms and school gardens. Some of the most vibrant school chapels happen in Episcopal preschools, lively services with storytelling and skits, finger songs and child-centered prayers, enthusiastic Alleluias and student participation. Read More »

When Grief Arrives

Recently in our community—in fact, just about a week after the start of classes—we lost a fourth-grader in an automobile accident. Such an unimaginable tragedy is, unfortunately, one that many of us have lived through in the lives of our schools. It brings to the surface everything that we claim to be important in our faith and in our schools, confronting us with the most raw emotions, the most difficult questions, the most heart-rending scenes we will ever face as educators. Read More »