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Q&A with Eliza Blanchard

How did you conceive of this book?
In divinity school, a course on prayer offered by an Episcopal priest opened up a world that had been closed since my atheist days in college. With her guidance, many of us liberated our ideas about prayer—about the who, what, where and why of this most human of practices.

As a new minister you quickly see that the need for a container for feelings of gratitude, hope, loss and the wish to help others is universal. Prayer and blessing are two such containers. A few years ago the mother of two young girls came to me and asked if I knew of any books of prayers for Unitarian Universalist children. Rose Hanig, the head of the bookstore at 25 Beacon, told me that she didn’t know of any. She confirmed that there was a need for one, and we talked about such a collection, but I was too busy to pursue it at that time.

A few years later, Rose remembered our conversation in a conversation with Patricia Frevert of Skinner House. Skinner House had just launched a series of books for children. We brainstormed what we felt was needed and the idea for a book of blessings and prayers came together from our talk.

Once the idea was approved for you to begin work, where did you begin? Where were prayers found (holy books, ephemera, etc.)
The search for material started with other religious leaders, religious educators and ministers. One of these, “There is a love” by Rebecca Parker, opens the collection. A grace I first heard sung at the religious education conference on Star Island—“From you I receive,” by Nathan Segal—is a wonderful one for children to know. A colleague lent me a book of children’s prayers that had some nostalgic material in it, like the closing blessing “Day is done,” which brought fond memories of camp. Reading and thinking about what children might need to pray about moved me to write a few prayers, too, one of which is included.

We imagined a collection that was as accessible to children and their families as possible, so a number of prayers were adapted or excerpted, for example those from traditional Christian blessings, like “Spirit of Life, make us truly thankful,” and the Irish birthday blessing.

We’re lucky to live in a time and place where interest in the religions of other cultures brings us collections of texts from all over the world. We’re especially fortunate to have access to those from oral traditions, like the Blackfoot, Sioux and Chinook traditions represented in the book.

What were some of the most unusual places you found prayers and blessings?
Many people won’t find this source unusual, but the Internet was a good source of texts. Many religions have websites that include prayers and blessings. Pagan groups especially seem to take advantage of the Internet as a place to share liturgical resources.

Were there any you didn’t use? Why?
Sure, there are hundreds of prayers that didn’t work, either because they relied on doctrinal material that would stand in the way of their message for Unitarian Universalists or because they were too abstract. In a thirty-four page collection I didn’t have room for all of those it would have been wonderful to include. The one prayer per page format works well, but we’ll have to think about a sequel for all those left out.

Is there anything you learned about the concept of blessing and prayers in the process (eg do other cultures or religions use them differently? Are they more universal than in UUism or in American culture?
Half the fun of researching is the learning. Absolutely, there’s a universal element to praying and to being blessed. We universally experience certain things: fear, hunger, and the need to feel loved. Human beings also feel the need to connect with that creative force that has called us into being, the transcendent. We risk living meaningless, purposeless or lonely lives if we ignore that force.

Many religious traditions often use prayer that reinforces their doctrinal beliefs. This may be why Unitarian Universalism has not had many collections for children in the past. Where to start? What words do we use? How to explain? Given the involvement of many of our congregations in humanism in the mid-twentieth century, many Unitarian Universalists may be less familiar with the purposes and practice of prayer than the American public at large. On the other hand, there are no aetheists in a ball park!

How do you think children understand or use blessing and prayers?
That’s a tough question. In working with children to create prayers, they certainly understand the purpose. Most children are polite, compassionate and notice things. So using these qualities in addressing the transcendent comes naturally to most children.

Another purpose for blessings and prayers, and a reason they may be more sought after by Unitarian Universalists in this day and age, is the power they have to slow down time. Making the time to say a blessing before a meal or a prayer before bed can help combat the stress and strain of the busy-ness we all fall prey to. Even a brief blessing said with intentionality helps us savor the gift of life we too often take for granted. And in sadness and grief, there’s nothing as comforting as unburdening yourself in prayer, and no comfort like offering or being offered a blessing.

Developing a deeper, or intimate, relationship with life as a way to find purpose and meaning is one of the key functions of prayer. That’s a very abstract concept, and it is not an easy one for children to learn. If parents are uncertain about their own prayer life, this book was designed to be a helpful starting place. Each prayer or blessing holds a basic concept, one easy to talk about with a child. The bibliography in the back is a further resource for adults who are introducing this practice to their children.

This book is a way to start the conversation within families and congregations about the purpose and meaning of prayer and blessings in one’s life. Simply handing a child this book will not bring the child into a prayerful life. Prayer is something that asks to be shared, discussed, and adapted to meet the needs of the individual and family.

Do you have any children in your life who’ve come in contact with the book? What was their response?
There are a couple of children I know who were excited to see it, but I haven’t yet had the fun of reading it with them.

What has been the response of your parishioners?
It’s summer, so we’re in a quiet space, but those who have read the book are happy that there’s something for U.U.s, something they can trust will be accessible to them. I have felt very supported by the congregation in doing this work. It’s also stimulated a great deal of conversation among us.

How was it seeing your collection juxtaposed with the illustrations?
It’s wonderful to see the words and images enhance one another. Rocco Baviera’s talent adds visual interest and wit to this book. My favorite is the snail illustrating the Jewish prayer that begins, “Thank you, Lord, for knowing me better than I know myself.” Gaining self-awareness requires great patience.

Anything else you would note to readers now that it’s published on the process, the struggle, or the joy of having compiled this book?
This book was a delight to work on and to see come together. I had the pleasure of working with Mary Bernard, my very helpful and encouraging editor. We can all be grateful to Skinner House for supporting all the families who hoped for a resource like this for their children.

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This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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