Faith to Grow On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a plea she couldn't ignore, coming as it did in the dead of night from a 13-year-old in deep despair:

"Mom, I need a new prayer."

The request from her older daughter shocked Celia Straus, as did her attempts to comply.

"We were not a religious family," Straus says. "I'm Episcopalian, my husband is Jewish. To avoid the issue of how to raise our kids, we practiced neither. The children grew up with nothing." That is, nothing except the little bedtime prayer she'd taught them as toddlers:

Bless me, God, the whole night through.

Bless my mommy and daddy too. . . .

And thank you, God, I humbly pray

For all you did for me today.

It had managed very nicely, thank you, until Julia hit 12.

"We were close until then," Straus recalls. "She was a happy child.

"But then her behavior changed. She stopped communicating, lost confidence, worried about her looks, her schoolwork, her friendships. She decided she was ugly because she had braces, pimples, her body was changing. She sat up worrying instead of sleeping at night."

When Julia's growing pains started, all bets were off about their great mother-daughter relationship.

"I'd whine at her, 'Julia, why aren't we close? Why don't we talk any more?'

"She'd say, 'Whatever, mom,' in that awful, sarcastic voice. Then she'd throw me the stony cold stare that only a 13-year-old can muster. Then she'd ignore me."

Straus perceived her daughter's midnight request as a straw worth grabbing at. So she quickly wrote a prayer in the form of a poem and left it on Julia's pillow the next day. Then she wrote another and another--one a day for an entire year.

That collection of prayers has become a hit book, now in its fourth printing: "Prayers on My Pillow: Inspiration for Girls on the Threshold of Change" (Ballantine). The book also has spawned a Web site (http://www.girlprayers.com), which receives up to 35,000 hits a month, some from girls who have read the book and want Straus to send them prayers to help ease their own problems.

In essence, Mama Straus now has a second career with her online youth ministry, as prayer-meister to a legion of girls seeking comfort for the inevitable changes that occur as adulthood approaches.

All these changes in her own life are almost too much to contemplate, Straus now says. She is still surprised that her daughter sought solace in such an unexpected way--and that she has been able to supply it, not just to her own child but to thousands of others.

"I've been so humbled by this--by the fact that Julie accepted the prayers on faith, that she shared them with her sister Emily [who was 9 at the time], and then allowed me to put them in a book to help others. I'm humbled that the prayers worked. To me, it's a gift I didn't deserve."

Until the book came out, Straus' sole career was writing documentary films, working from home in Washington, D.C. It may sound like a low-key lifestyle to those who leave home each morning for work. But during phone interviews, it is clear from Straus' frenetic tone of voice and rapid-fire speech that she's probably just as stressed as mothers who are away all day.

"I do work constantly," she says, "but for a long time I felt proud that I was here when the children needed me." Indeed, Straus felt her availability was one reason she and the girls had been so close.

Forget about it.

Daughter Julia, now 16, says she saw no advantage to her mother's physical proximity.

"Sure, she was around the house. But she was always busy. We didn't discuss important things," Julia said in a separate interview.

"I was in seventh grade, which is a tough year. I had changes going on--with friends, with school, with me. I often wanted to talk to my mom, but she never really had time. We'd talk at dinner and again before bed. But it was never anything personal or deep."

*

Then came the night when Julia, beset with undefined agonies, sought her mother's comfort. Neither knew how to bridge the gulf between them, Julia recalls. But during their talk, the girl remembered the prayer she used to say when she was little.

It had brought her solace, made her feel safe. Now it was insufficient. Without really thinking, Julia says, she asked for a more grown-up replacement. She never expected her mother to remember or respond.

Straus recalls what happened next: "I knew my daughter thought I didn't understand her. But I also knew that her problems were exactly the same ones I'd suffered at the same tormented age. I reached back and tapped into my own unhappy memories. I went back to the time when everything I'd counted on--my looks, my friends, my family--all suddenly seemed to change. I couldn't trust anyone or anything."

Straus wrote a prayer and left it on Julia's pillow. It began:

I think I'm afraid to grow up, God,

For I see how much pain there could be.

I want to stay young and protected.

I'm scared that I'll lose what is me.

There was no big response from her daughter, Straus recalls, but intuition told her to keep at it. So she left a new prayer on Julia's pillow each night. Prayers about zits and other body flaws, about fear of failure at school, about disloyal friends. Straus says she tried to write each prayer as a direct response to things happening right then in her daughter's life. When Julia's best friend abandoned her for another girl, for example, Straus wrote about that. At exam time, there were prayers to lessen anxiety and bring a more calm perspective.

"I tried to show that I understood her feelings and to give her tools to understand them herself, and to cope. I wasn't trying to solve things for her, but to help her solve them . . . through faith in herself and in God," with whom Straus also was finding a renewed connection.

Once, early in the project, Straus was so busy with work that she forgot to write that day's prayer. Her daughter came around asking where it was, why wasn't it on her pillow.

"That's when I knew the prayers were really meaningful to her," Straus recalls. So she continued the daily routine with even more fervor.

At first, Julia didn't say much to her mother about the nightly gifts. But inside, her heart was singing.

"Those prayers were like a surprise every day. I couldn't believe how much she really knew about me, even though I hadn't told her. I'd just get this prayer, and I'd feel soothed. It made my problems seem like not such a big deal. I would read it over and over and over, and I always felt better."

*

It was and still is remarkable to Straus that this child, who had seemed so rebellious and full of herself and remote, actually was feeling empty, alone and unable to cope. Straus says she could not have imagined that her daughter would clutch at the prayers like a person holding on to a life raft.

Straus' husband, Richard, who writes a newsletter called "Middle East Policy Survey" for universities, diplomats and corporations, "was as surprised as I was. He was very supportive," Straus says, even though he did not participate in the prayer project directly.

Janine Bempechat, a specialist in the motivation of children and assistant professor at the Harvard graduate school of education, says she knows firsthand that this can be true.

Bempechat was raised in Quebec, where she attended public school.

"I grew up saying the Lord's Prayer every morning, followed by about 20 minutes of singing hymns," she says. "It was so lovely and calming--it really prepared and inspired us for the day ahead. It gave us a kind of perspective that allowed us to gauge the relative importance of things, even though we were only kids."

The fact that Bempechat was a Jewish child immersed in daily doses of Christianity never troubled her or her parents, she says.

"They understood the value of having faith and didn't worry about which faith it was," she says.

Those early experiences have led Bempechat to "the heretical point of view that there should be no separation of church and state when it comes to school prayer," she says. Nowadays, she says, she's "all for putting that kind of religion back in schools."

W. George Scarlett, a specialist in childhood spiritual development at Tufts University, says prayer is particularly helpful to children approaching their teens.

"That's when they develop this incredible sense that they are actually two people. There's the self that everyone can see, and there's the one they think is totally hidden, that only they know about.

"Of course we adults may know exactly what they're feeling, but they don't think we know. So they've got this dilemma. New feelings surging inside of them: angry, sexy, depressed, inadequate--embarrassing and confusing feelings they feel compelled to hide. And the very hiding of those feelings is what makes the child feel isolated, cut off and disconnected."

Adolescence is when individuals begin the difficult task of trying to bring those two selves together, Scarlett says.

"It's very lonely and frightening," he says. "Praying has special advantages because God knows all of you. There's no possibility of hiding parts of you, no way to keep yourself split in two."

*

Julia recalls that her mother's prayers were sort of liberating, because they touched upon certain feelings she'd been too embarrassed to talk with her mother about. The prayers "opened a kind of pathway," Julia says. "We'd get to talking about what she wrote, and that got me talking about what I was really worried about."

Julia didn't immediately tell her friends about all this.

"I worried they'd think it was silly. I also thought the prayers were so personal, so much about me, that no one else would identify with them," she says.

But she was wrong. The prayers dealt with problems of many her age. The friends with whom she eventually shared them thought the prayers were "neat," Julia says. One friend showed the prayers to her own mother, who is a literary agent. And that's how the collection of 150 of Straus' prayers came to be published.

Nowadays, the author says she finds herself "getting up earlier and earlier every morning" to read and answer her electronic mail. "Sometimes the letters are heart-wrenching. They ask for prayers to help them get through anything from the first day at a new school to divorcing parents, drug habits, the loss of family or friends." The Web site was especially active after the shootings in Littleton, Colo.

The Web site also offers short, fun quizzes for parents as well as kids. (See box at right.)

"All the girls love those tests in the teen magazines," Straus says. " 'How romantic are you?' 'How neat are you?' So I did some that ask, 'How spiritual are you?' Or, for moms, 'How well do you communicate with your daughter?' "

Straus says she did not want to call her work "poems" or "verses" because "a poem can be read lightly and dismissed. But prayers are active. They force a thought process, require you to think deeply about your yearnings and problems, about what you are praying for."

She has found that prayer demands that children "listen to their own inner voices and to believe that God is listening also. This helps children to know themselves, to get comfort from the fact that they are not alone or isolated. It makes them feel they can have all sorts of limitations and yet be loved." Maybe prayer can't help solve all kids' problems, Straus says. But she's certain there's no child it can hurt.

Bettijane Levine can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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