What my 5-year-old taught me about prayer during Lent


My son and I are driving to pick up my daughter from preschool, passing houses with icicles the size of trucks hanging from the gutters. To our west, as we cross an overpass above the highway, the sky is starting to weep with pink as the sun begins to set.

“Do you know where God is?” my 5-year-old son Henry asks suddenly from his booster seat.


“Where?” I answer, surprised that he’s bringing up God and curious to hear more.

“He’s that sky,” he says.


“Yeah. Of course. God is everything! Do you know what else is God?”

“What else?”

“He is that light,” he says as we drive past a streetlight. “He’s this car. We are sitting on God,” he says. “Even this toy car.”

He is holding a miniature car that transforms from blue to yellow. His dad let him pick out at the dollar store after swim lessons on Saturday.

“Do you know where God is?” my 5-year-old son Henry asks suddenly from his booster seat.

“God is that house,” Henry continues. “God is our bodies. God is our eyeballs!”

“Our eyeballs?!”

“Yes! God is everywhere,” he says with conviction. “God is that jet.”

I turn off the main street and around the corner, a block away from preschool.

“But you know what?” he says.


“God is dead.”

“If God is everywhere and everything, then how can God also be dead?”

“He just is! He’s everything! God is our heart.”


It is 40 degrees and the sun is out. It is Valentine’s Day and the first day of Lent. I am wearing new gym shoes, jogging through slush on my way to church.

Inside the church, after a couple of readings and songs, the priest talks about a reading in which we are advised to rend our hearts and not our garments. I don’t understand what this means.

“How many of you have seen the Sacred Heart?” he asks, and then describes the image of Jesus, tearing open his robe and holding his heart in his hands. A tear of blood is dripping down his heart. A crown of thorns is surrounding it. And flames are blazing from the top.

“If God is everywhere and everything, then how can God also be dead?”

“Pretty intense, right?” the priest says. “But it’s symbolizing the intensity of God’s love for us. It is a burning love.”

He asks us to go home and find an image of the Sacred Heart, print it out and post it somewhere visible in our home: a bathroom mirror, the front of our fridge. Somewhere we are bound to see it every day to remember God’s burning love and reflect on how we can live a love like that through fasting and prayer and almsgiving. By rending our hearts and not our garments.

“Remember a simple message we see and hear everywhere on Valentine’s Day. Two words that also sum up what Jesus wants from each of our hearts. ‘Be mine.’”


I am jogging home after attending the Ash Wednesday prayer service, my head marked with a cross of ash. I am jogging around the neighborhood near where my son and I were driving the night before.

Icicles are melting, connecting bushes on the ground with the houses above them. I look up at a bare, bold oak tree, fearlessly reaching toward the sun.

“God is that tree,” I think, and that moment a jet flies behind it. “God is that jet.”

I continue jogging, and before long realize that I am unconsciously naming God with every breath.

“God is this slush,” I think as I tread over a sidewalk that hasn’t been shoveled, gruffly adding, “And God is the person who didn’t shovel it.”

I breathe in and out this perfect prayer inspired by my 5-year-old, naming all the things that God is.

As I stop at a corner, before the overpass that crosses the highway, a car blows through a stop sign, and I curse before correcting, “God is that driver. God is this highway. God is the train. God is the city.”

When another driver reverses out of the crosswalk so that I can pass, I wave.

“God is that nice man.”

For 10 minutes or so, I breathe in and out this perfect prayer inspired by my 5-year-old, naming all the things that God is.

“God is this breath. God is this heartbeat. God is everything.”


When I pick up my kids from daycare, they are carrying paper bags brimming with heart-covered cards and candies. They are brimming with the joy and love they’ve shared among a multitude of little friends and classmates that day.

At home, while I make heart-shaped quesadillas and tomato soup, they nibble candy. When we sit down to dinner and start eating, Henry asks why I have dirt on my head. I had forgotten it was there.

“It’s ashes,” I say.

I remind him that it’s the first day of Lent, and how Lent is the season before Easter, like Advent is the season before Christmas. I tell him and Magnolia about the Sacred Heart: how it is a picture of Jesus, who has torn open his chest and is holding in his hands his burning, bleeding heart.

“God is this breath. God is this heartbeat. God is everything.”

“How did he tear open his body?” Magnolia asks, looking a little disgusted by the idea.

“That means he’s dead!” Henry exclaims.

“Maybe he used the Force,” she concludes, referencing “Star Wars,” which we had recently watched together. Then she jumps up to fetch another spoon from the drawer.

“What is ashes?” Henry asks.

“Kind of like dirt,” I say and then ask him if he can remember what happens after something burns. How nothing is left at the end of a fire but ashes.

“Yes,” he says. “But why is it on you?”

“On Ash Wednesday—that’s today—they put ash on your head in a cross so that we remember that before we were alive we were nothing. We were kind of like the air or the dirt. Or who knows what we were. And that is what all of us will be again when we’re not alive anymore.”

Kids die. They do. It is awful, and it is true. But I won’t rend my son’s heart with this view of the world.

“No! Not me! I will live forever! Magnolia and me will live forever!”

Bits of tortilla chips fly from the corners of his mouth, he is that excited as he speaks, and his eyes are bulging with conviction.

“Tell me how,” I say, wanting to understand what he thinks.

“Because we’re kids!” His words are rushed, high-pitched and determined. “Kids never die!”

I think of the kids who earlier that day lost their lives at a high school in Parkland, Fla. I think of Sandy Hook. I think of mass violence, mass casualties, war, rape, famine, disease.

Kids die, I think. They do. It is awful, and it is true. But I won’t rend my son’s heart with this view of the world. I won’t rend my own. I will say nothing, and I will believe, right now, that Henry is right. I will embrace his beautiful view.

This Lent, I will strive to name God in all things.

“I have two spoons!” Magnolia sings. “Watch this! I can both use them tooo—scoopy-doopy-scoopy-scoop!”

Her two spoons fly toward her mouth at opposite angles, and she slurps the soup.

“You’re gonna choke yourself,” Henry tells her.

“Henry is a big sweetie pie,” she trills.


In front of the altar on Ash Wednesday, I closed my eyes as the minister’s thumb traced an ash cross on my forehead, telling me, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The Gospel is an outrageous story.

It is irrational to believe.

Today, I will believe anyway. I will embrace the story unfolding in this season and unfolding every day in my life: a story of opportunity and renewal. A story of melting icicles, rising suns—a story of springtime. I will embrace the beautiful view the irrational permits. I will embrace the continuity and the connection. I will embrace rebirth. This Lent, I will strive to name God in all things.

God is our bodies. God is our hearts. God is everything. God is everywhere.

Vicki Barbosa
3 weeks 5 days ago

A lovely essay. It's wonderful to listen to the innocence of our children, who are so open to the world and to God. I hope I'm not being nitpicky, but God is not all those things that Henry named. That would be pantheism. God is the creator of all things, and in Him we live and move and have our being. He made the sky, the jet plane, (through us) and the trees, but He is not them. He is beyond and above them.

Bruce Snowden
3 weeks 5 days ago

Yes, God is Everything, the Creator Who made Everything that exists out of No Thing, the Great Evolutionary Engineer Who designed all Things to be what they are, sprinkling the incalculable cosmos with His skills, His laws, awaiting discovery and implementation, to become that Jet, et al, allowing words of wisdom out of the mouths of children to rend hearts and garments to the better.

Yet mysteriously, God is beyond the visible, having no thing to do with creative inventiveness, immeasurably above all, but relishing side-by-side relationships to whatever is, by Nature responsible for and responsive to all the works of His hands, having everything to do with the seen and the unseen, Great Engineer that He is, sharing with animate and inanimate creations fabulous abilities that could not and would not exist apart from Him. And so very much more!

Emmett Hubarth
3 weeks ago

As beautiful as this is, these children should have been, not only at the service on Ash Wednesday, but every mass and service their parents attend. They should have participated in the ashes.

Nora Bolcon
2 weeks 6 days ago

Dear Emmett, that just can't be what you got out of this wonderful article. Take care not to lose the point of Lent by your observation of its rituals.

Nora Bolcon
2 weeks 6 days ago

What a wonderful article. What is it Jesus says in the Gospels, "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?"

It is amazing how truth comes forth from God in unexpected ways. Science suggests to us that we are all one connected matter. That tree over there, although appearing to be a completely separate entity from ourselves, actually is not. Although we appear as individual life forms, we fundamentally are all attached as one existing matter, eternally connected in existence to each other and the things which seem lifeless like the chair we are sitting in.

Praise be to God Forever, The Lord Who excites the mind, as he lifts up the body, frees the soul, and breaths forever and always into our very being.

More: Lent / Family Life / Guns

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