Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take. I sometimes pray that prayer before I go to sleep. My parents taught it to me as a child. It’s a nice prayer. I’ve been trying to teach it to my own daughters but it’s been more difficult than it should be.
Perhaps thinking them incapable of producing plenty of noise on their own, different people have given them stuffed animals that talk – indeed, animals that “pray” this prayer when you squeeze them.
What troubles me is that the prayers from my daughters’ furry friends aren’t exactly the one I’m trying to instill. When you squeeze a foot, yellow ducky prays “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, angels watch me through the night; ‘til I awake in morning’s light.”
Squeeze an ear and white bunny intones yet another version, one that ends, “If I should go another day, I pray the Lord to guide my way.” I’ve got a beef with ducky and bunny for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, they’re confusing my daughters: “Ducky says one thing. Bunny another. Daddy still another. Whom to believe?” But beyond my parental authority being challenged by stuffed farm animals, there’s the bigger issue: compared to the one I learned, the animal prayers stink.
Oh, I understand why the long standing if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take version got replaced. The duck and bunny makers figured it was too big a prayer for little children. In figuring that, they figured exactly wrong. The truth is it’s only someone as small as a child who can pray a prayer that big. If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take is the prayer of complete consignment into the hands of another, a prayer of total trust, a prayer of utter dependence. And no one gets utter dependence like a little child.
The same little girls I’m trying to teach to pray will jump 12’ off the top of the playground slide without blinking if I’m standing there. They’re kids. They’d trust me to catch them. I wouldn’t trust me to catch me. For the same reason, they can pray that prayer better than I can. They can fling their little selves right into another night’s sleep knowing that, live or die, them Father will be there to catch them when they wake. It’s not children who have given us those duck and bunny prayers. It’s their parents who have forgotten what it means to be a child.
In his deeply moving meditation on Jesus’ words from the cross, Death on a Friday Afternoon, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote of a conversation he once had with an elderly priest. Father Neuhaus asked the cleric if, after hearing thousands of confessions over the decades, he had learned anything. Without hesitation, the priest answered: I have learned there are no grown-ups. Ah, yes—the wisdom of time spent in the fields of the Lord! There are children who pretend to be grown-ups – chest out tough guys, got it all together, my own two feet, self-made man—all that grown-up garbage. And then there are those who have grown to know the utter dependence of being a child.
Today is Good Friday and on Good Friday, there are no grown-ups. At the foot of the Holy Cross of Jesus, there are only helpless, utterly dependent children ready to fling themselves into the arms of the crucified. At least that’s how I will feel this evening when I leave a darkened church—bare save for a rough hewn cross illumined by a single candle. I will have seen my Lord thirsting for my salvation, heard my dying God pray for my forgiveness, and witnessed their water-blood-guarantee flow from his pierced side. In response I and the others present will muster only a whispered Kyrie eleison and maybe the Our Father.
That’s not a grown-up response. It’s the response of a child, a child whose eternity hangs from the nails, who dares gaze upon the blessed cross and know only there do his sins and the sins of the world find answer. For there hangs the blessed Redeemer, with bruised arms spread wide crying out, “Suffer the little children to come …” On Good Friday many will come… come utterly dependent on the savior who takes away the sins of the world. Little children will come to hear his “It is finished! Your sins are finished! Your guilt is finished! Your shame is finished! Your death is finished!
At the foot of the cross, there are no grown-ups. Perhaps hell will be filled with those who insist on being grown-ups. At the feet of the crucified, there are only children…only children flinging themselves into another night … when the time comes, only children charging even into the night of death with a prayer like this on their lips: Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul will take.