Prayer is a fundamental means by which we develop “attention” in the Christian life. Prayer has often seemed rather perfunctory in most Christian schools. There are two ditches here. The first is the ditch I feel most are in: wherein prayer is tacked on to the normal activities as a spiritual thing that ought to be done. We pray at the right moments and even then in rather quick and routine ways. The other ditch that some administrators seem to use as justification for being in Ditch A is the danger that some will pray all the time and thus defeat the educational purpose of school. I have never seen this in action, though I have seen some folks with one wheel off the road in this direction. When fully in the ditch, the praying would be the bulk of the activity in the school.
Obviously I believe there is a middle road somewhere in there. Prayer is fundamental to the Christian life. If the purpose of a Christian school is to train up students who walk in wisdom and virtue, then it must traffic often in prayer. My purpose here is not to build a theology of prayer, or even a tract on the discipline of prayer. Others have done so way better than I could. But when you read such things, it does strike me often that one of our sincerest problems in modern education (attention “deficit”) is something clearly addressed in a proper practice of prayer. This is not an egregious ploy to use prayer as an educational technique. It is the strong belief that if we do what we ought to do, some of our current educational issues will no longer be as pronounced.
Much of modern educational pedagogy belittles and moves far away from any exercise that would improve a child’s attention. This is in part because we don’t believe attention to be a skill but rather a “talent” that some have and others can’t build in themselves. This is pure educational hog wattle. Attention is a discipline, a forming of a frame of mind. It is attainable by anyone who sets their mind to it in a proper way. This is where prayer comes in for the Christian.
True Christian prayer is an attuning of the heart to its Maker. It is a prolonged attentive meditation upon oneself and one’s God. It can be as short as a single sentence, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” But the implications and intentions of such a prayer, when properly attended to, would take us much longer than the few seconds necessary to simply say it. The attention to such things, when habituated in the disciple, becomes a discipline that grows and expands and deepens. Many moderns have decried the “vain repetition” of such things as “the Jesus Prayer.” Saying the same sentence over and over, or the Lord’s Prayer, or other such meditational prayers, is seen as “vain, i.e. Useless.” But a repetition need not be vain if it is accompanied with some benefits that remove it from vanity. A careful attentive repetition or formulaic prayer can actually be part of entering into a deeper understanding of the truths contained in these short prayers. Imagine if each of our students actually believed each phrase of the Jesus Prayer!
So my point can be summarized rather simply here: What we do in a school forms what our students love. If we enter into real habits of prayer, that avoid the “simpleton” ditch A and the “overkill of activity” ditch B mentioned above, but rather pray as our Lord taught us to pray, we will not only build a love of prayer into our student’s lives, but they will also have the blessed skill of attention formed in them as well.
Of course there will be issues of how to do this well, the time necessary, and other such obstacles. But when has the right thing ever been the easiest or most popular thing?