I grew up as the fourth of nine children in Hungary before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. By the time I came of age, the sharp edge of discrimination by the government against religious practices had worn down into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Nobody asked, and we didn’t tell. We lived our faith strictly within the family, and we never talked about it in public. We participated in Mass on Sundays and then cautiously left the church building, hoping that no one had seen us.
Because of government control of publishing, Christian materials were very expensive. It often cost a full month’s wages to purchase a Bible. So I was delighted when I received my first New Testament from my godfather, a Benedictine priest, for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. This hardbound, pocket-sized volume is printed on very thin paper, with a font size that is now a challenge for me to read. I remember the awe with which I handled it after I unwrapped it. I also remember carefully turning the pages so that the fragile paper would not tear. I treasure it still and cherish the gift of the word of God it brought to my life.
My Parents’ Witness. Through these difficult circumstances, my parents continued to find ways to help us know and love the Lord. My mother’s steadfast prayer anchored us and taught us how to live as faithful Catholics under an oppressive regime. My father’s work as a musician, both professionally and in our parish, introduced the rhythm of the liturgical year into our family life.
One of the poignant memories I have of my mother is finding her in bed late at night, reading the Bible. In addition to raising the nine of us, she also worked outside the home, and my father’s two to three jobs at a time often took him away from the daily chores of family life. So seeing my mother at prayer made me realize how much her deep faith sustained her in difficult times. I also saw how it connected us and sustained us as a family.
Singing and Praying Together. Being the daughter of a musician who was also a dedicated Catholic, I learned early on the truth that music and singing have an exceptional power to help connect us with God. Singing my favorite hymns filled my heart with joy, gave me a glimpse of the relationship God wanted to have with us, and demonstrated to me the power of the Holy Spirit.
My father composed melodies to accompany the words of the mealtime prayers, so I learned to pray through music. As we sang our thanksgiving around the kitchen table, our voices would carry the melody in unison before we broke into harmonies at the final “Amen.”
I learned that singing together requires breathing together. And breathing together and keeping the beat of the music could synchronize our heartbeats. I also learned that singing together works best when we listen to each other, tuning in to the people around us rather than tuning them out. Singing our prayer both deepened and gave witness to our connection to one another. Even more, singing became a source of the Spirit’s strength, keeping us together and giving us hope through very difficult times.
I now realize this was nothing short of miraculous. The source of this miracle is God, who never tired of reaching out to us, whose presence resonated in our hearts when we prayed, no matter where we were or how challenging our circumstances.
A Legacy of Prayer, Song, and Faith. I have now lived outside of Hungary longer than I lived in the country of my birth. I have been praying in English for more than thirty years. Yet voices from the past are very much a part of the present. Just as my mother and father did, I passed on the gift of sung prayer. My parents taught me that the best way to teach someone how to pray is by praying with them. So even before my children could speak, I made sure they heard our mealtime prayer being sung—in Hungarian. As soon as they could make sounds, they joyfully joined in. Before long, the words were flowing from their own lips. Through this shared prayer, they experienced the deep love of God and became rooted in the sustaining faith of their grandparents.
Now I am watching my children share this beautiful gift with their children. Imagine my delight when my grandchildren, who were born and raised in the United States, first joined us singing in Hungarian! I love seeing our youngest grandson’s face light up as he hears the first notes of our prayer as we gather around the table. His hands immediately come together, often dropping whatever food he was holding onto the tray of his high chair. This is pure praise and joy! I am so blessed that my son-in-law and daughter appreciate this gift of prayer.
The music of my childhood often finds its way onto my lips. In their teens, my children would hiss under their breath when we were in public: “Mom, you are singing out loud!” Indeed. I rarely noticed, for I am always singing; sometimes you can hear me. For me, prayer and singing are inseparable. The melodies in my head echo the music in my heart. And the music in my heart is but a faint reflection of the divine harmonies that await us in heaven.
To this day, I still join my US-born children and grandchildren in singing the prayers before meals—and we still harmonize on the “Amen.”
May our prayer echo all the “Amens” that have sustained our families through the generations.
Agnes Kovacs is director of continuing formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana.
Drawing from her rich family ties, her personal experience of faith, and her theological training, Agnes Kovacs has written A Prayer Book for Catholic Women (hardcover, 172 pp). She calls this book—which combines traditional prayers and prayers from contemporary authors with her own compositions—“an introduction to prayer . . . and an invitation to go deeper.” “Prayer is more an attitude than a skill,” Kovacs writes, and the prayers in her book aim to help us develop a prayerful attitude of trust in the Lord. You can find this book at wau.org/prayerbookforwomen.