I have a hard time keeping my eyes closed these days during prayers. This mostly has to do with the fact that my children don't keep their eyes closed during prayers. You know, they are always looking around, picking their noses, giggling, or, if it's a meal prayer, they're stuffing their faces.
The usual culprit on this last one is my youngest. J is always hungry. He usually walks around the house with a bag of cereal or a box of crackers in tow. He also checks all the cabinets, the refrigerator, and even occasionally asks me to open the oven so he knows where all the food in the house is located. If one of my girls leaves food unattended--you know, like if they drop their fork on the floor and have to pick it up--J is there finishing their food for them, whether they wanted him to or not. I don't usually hound him about his face-stuffing habits because I think he's still making up for the weight he lost as an infant due to his acid reflux disease, but, well his behavior during prayers is something else.
J is always the first one at the table. In fact, he follows me around while I cook and questions me. "Food?" he asks. "Snacks?" "Cheese?" "Juice?" "Cracker?" "Food!" From the moment his plate is on the table he is shoving fistfuls down his gullet. I know it's a meal he really likes when his utensils hit the floor and he's asking for more before he's done with the first helping.
There is no stopping his quest for satiation, not even asking him to pray breaks his stride. He's only a toddler so at best his prayers are guttural approximations of the words I tell him to repeat. At his worst (read: normal) his prayers are unabashed shows of what he has already eaten through sprays of chewed up sustenance and drool. This, of course, makes the rest of us giggle quite a lot. The best part is that J doesn't seem to notice how bizarre or ridiculous his behavior is. That's the gift of childhood: the oblivious ability to meet your needs regardless of how inappropriate your behavior is.
I was watching him pray tonight and was quite surprised by the emotions that filled me. I was so touched by his messy, chimpanzee-like behavior. It's the only really babyish thing left about him and it charms me. As I watched him trying to say "Jesus" around an impossibly big mouthful, and felt a smile spread across my face, I wondered if that is how I look to my Father in Heaven. I wondered how many of my spiritual efforts are akin to praying with my mouth full.
I mean, think about it. How often do we read our scriptures while simultaneously tucking ourselves in bed? How often do we fast with most of our hearts and minds while planning our big dinner with the rest? How often do we bear testimony with our logical, socially acceptable phrases instead of the words the Spirit is trying to get us to articulate? For me, I think that the demands of my temporal existence infringe on my spiritual efforts more often than I realize.
The other part of this realization is that, just like I can't help but smile when J prays with his mouthful, I think Heavenly Father smiles when we do the same thing. After all, no matter how old we are we are still spiritual children. Compared to the greatness and the glory of our Father in Heaven, we basically are spiritual toddlers. And maybe the blissful ignorance of our inconsistencies is the gift of that spiritual childhood too. J's ignorance leads him to keep trying even when he's inconsistent because that's how he'll learn; he's not afraid of failing or doing it wrong. What matters is that he's doing it, figuring it out.
So often I get discouraged because of the distance between me and perfection. But maybe it isn't distance that keeps me from my eternal goals, it's time. I just need to grow up and that's something that really only happens day by day, food-filled prayer by food-filled prayer. J is going to grow up and he will eventually stop praying with his mouth full and we too will grow up and be able to give our hearts more fully to God. Life--existence!--is like that. We learn and progress sometimes imperceptibly but we are learning and progressing all the same. And that's why God can smile when we are praying with our mouths full: it's a temporary phase and He knows our potential and He knows we will grow out of it and He can enjoy the small successes we have. That's what makes Him our Father in Heaven, as opposed to some impersonal god, He knows us that intimately and loves us that deeply.
Maybe learning to bask in that love is as much a step on the path to perfection as learning to wait until after the prayer to eat.