I went on a wonderful retreat when my youngest son was 18 months old. It was very hard to leave him, but to be honest it was also amazing to enjoy some solitude and some silent time with God.
When I returned, however, I realised that my experience felt strangely disconnected from the rest of my life. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to have the kind of spiritual life that was just waiting for the next retreat (however good they may be). I wanted my spiritual life to be about all of my life and to include the people that I live with.
I know that all families and households are different, but in our case there are four of us, and our boys are 9 and 13. Several years ago when we were in the process of moving to where we currently live, there was a bible passage that kept popping up. You know how that sometimes happens?
It was the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth in Genesis 28. In that time of upheaval and mourning and change, it comforted us, reassuring us that, even if it didn’t feel like it, God was with us in that place. ‘Wherever you go,’ God says to Jacob, ‘I will watch over you’.
As we explored our new home, one of the things we first noticed was that the house had a relatively large landing halfway up the stairs with a mysterious little cupboard in the wall. Almost immediately, I think, we thought that it could become a kind of prayer corner for us in this house and we called it the ‘prayer stair’.
Our boys, then both primary school aged, chose what colour to paint the inside of our cupboard on the prayer stair and then they did the painting. We talked about what we would do there and how we would do it. We filled the cupboard with things that we thought would help us to pray: bibles, books, a candle, holding crosses, pictures, a chalkboard where we could write the names of those we wanted to remember.
We don’t have a set-in-stone formula that we use, although we usually have a Bible reading taken from a lectionary and we usually choose one of several ways to pray together out loud. Sometimes we use liturgies and set forms of prayer. Occasionally the boys take the initiative to lead what we do – either by typing up their own liturgy or even by making a PowerPoint. We’ve sometimes listened to a song or sometimes have sung one.
This happens most nights but not all nights, for various reasons. It could be that one of us has to rush out for a meeting or someone calls round. Sometimes the boys complain about going on the prayer stair. I should be quick to say that the prayer stair only happens most nights because my husband is quite good at keeping us to it – I tend to be more forgetful.
Just in case I’m painting a very pious image in your mind, I should also say that it sometimes happens that one of us gets the giggles, and, catching as they are, it has been known for us all to laugh until tears run down our faces. This, too, can be a gift. (And to be honest, some parts of the Bible are really funny.)
The most surprising thing to me about our prayer stair tradition is the people who have joined us there. When grandparents come to visit, they join us on the prayer stair because that is what we do. There isn’t usually another time during their visit when we pray together so this has felt really precious.
We recently had some young people from a former youth group visiting. They joined us on the prayer stair. (It was a bit of a squeeze). Even babysitters and our children’s friends have joined us on the prayer stair. I think it doesn’t feel weird because it has become normal for us.
When storms rage outside or within us, the prayer stair offers a moment of sanctuary that we are sometimes able to accept. At times this has felt life-saving.
It may be that the prayer stair pattern won’t work so well when we have teenagers, or if we move to a different house, but whatever form our prayer takes, I hope it will be as normally a part of our lives as the stairs that we walk up and down each day.