Archive for Lent

St. Joseph’s Feast Day: A Reprieve from Lent

Simon of Cyrene.  Veronica.  Mary.  Even Jesus needed a little help along the way.  Even He found strength from the temporal care of others.  So, too, does His Church offer relief along the sacrificial way of Lent.  The saints’ feast days are always reason to celebrate, and St. Joseph’s is no exception–even though it falls on March 19, during Lent.

Recognized as the great intercessor who saved the city of Sicily, Italy, from famine many centuries ago, St. Joseph is traditionally honored with feasting and festivity in Italy on his feast day.  Great tables, called St. Joseph’s Table, are laid in three tiers representing the Holy Trinity.  The top tier holds a statue of St. Joseph and flowers or greenery.  The other tiers hold an assortment of meatless food:  minestras, or thick bean and vegetable soups, breads and pastries in the shapes of chalices, carpentry tools, lilies, fish, monstrances, etc., wine for the miracle at Cana, 12 fish for the twelve apostles, pineapple for hospitality, lemons for “luck”, and pasta with seasoned bread crumbs, or “carpenter’s dust”, instead of cheese.  The fava bean carries special significance since it was the one crop that thrived during the famine in Italy so long ago.

an example of a St. Joseph's table at Mount Carmel Church in Denver, CO

an example of a St. Joseph’s table at Mount Carmel Church in Denver, CO

Decor on the tables’ tiers includes candles in green, brown, and deep yellow to represent the colors of St. Joseph’s clothing, as well as lilies and white carnations to match the white linen table coverings.  There might also be a basket for prayer petitions and pictures of the dead.  These great tables are laid for celebration either in homes, or in public squares where the wealthy can provide food to share with the poor.

Take a break from your Lenten fast and honor the great man who stood by Jesus’ side as His earthly father and humble servant.

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St. Joseph’s cream puffs

Adapt the huge Italian celebrations to your own family.  Prepare a festive meal of minestrone soup, fish, and/or pasta, hearty breads, and pastries.  Lay your table with white and pick up some fresh lilies or carnations to place beside a statue or picture of St. Joseph.  Try your hand at making fava beans or a traditional dessert for the feast day, Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Cream Puffs).  And consider imitating the gesture of Italy’s public square tables by making an extra donation to your local food pantry.

Gather strength by uniting your family with St. Joseph in celebration, and enter into Holy Week renewed to embrace the Cross.

Image credit: Cream Puff by Romi (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

The Domestic Confessional

domestic confessional

I dropped to my knees and began mopping up the mess, grumbling as I worked.  “You have to be more careful!  Especially when it’s a full gallon of milk!  Ask Mommy for help next time so you won’t make a mess!”

I looked up at my daughter and stopped.  A look of surprise mingled with remorse was fixed on her face.

“Sorry,” she whispered with downcast eyes.

My heart dropped to my feet and my tone softened.  I tried to salvage the mess I had poured on top of hers. “It’s okay. Just ask me for help next time.”  She walked away, and I finished cleaning, by now more frustrated with myself than with the spill.

The image of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son flashed through my mind.   The father who didn’t scold.  The father who didn’t ask any questions.  The son who leaned with relief into a loving embrace of perfect mercy.  And this was a son who had intentionally spent his father’s inheritance on gambling and prostitutes!

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Yet his father greeted him with genuine love and joy.

The father must have seen instantly the remorse on his son’s face.  He must have recognized the hardships his son had already endured, and understood that his son was disappointed with himself.

Their exchange wasn’t as much about the words that were spoken, as it was about the tone of their encounter.

One of the most healing moments I’ve experienced after a recent miscarriage was in the confessional.  A flood of emotions had been washing over me since the day I lost my baby: anger, despair, bitterness, envy, resentment, self-doubt, longing, and even a little joy.  I had never experienced a loss like this before, and wasn’t sure what to do with all of those feelings.  As I prayed and asked God to show me the way, I felt pulled to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And as I knelt in church, trying to decipher my sins through a cloud of grief, I knew God wanted me to receive the sacrament face-to-face–to experience the mercy of confession in a way that I hadn’t in many years.

After confessing my sins through a screen for so long, it was a surprising relief to sit down and visit with our parish priest like I would a friend.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to confess; I just laid bare how I’d been feeling, and the most wonderful thing happened.  I can’t remember exactly what he said, but my priest made me feel as if all of my shortcomings, all of my confusion, and all of my worries were no big deal.  Because, at that point, they weren’t.  I was there, I was sorry, and I was open to guidance.  I was the prodigal son returning, and God not only had mercy on my sins, but mercy on my grief as well.

I realized that this is real mercy: a guiding hand as gentle as our tenderest desires, eyes that recognize our remorse before our mistakes, ears that are open to our perspective rather than closed by judgement, and a heart that is so overcome with joy by our return that it instantly forgets our transgressions.

As my children go about their days, making mistakes and learning to follow God’s will, I hope that our domestic confessional can be as merciful as the church confessional–that the tone of every teaching moment is one of gentle guidance and joy in the return.  And that as I drop to my knees to clean up their messes, I take the time to look at them before the mess and say, “You are loved.”

Image credit: Baby in parent’s arms, Rotaru Florin (Pixabay, CCO Public Domain)

Paying Attention During Lent: Encouragement for Exhausted Parents

paying attention during lent

In this terrific reflection over on God In All Things, Tony Krzmarzick reflects on how busy he is and how this affects him spiritually. He works intensively as a campus minister all day, then he returns home to face chores, cooking, and other duties. It seems unending to him:

Between work and home, I could spend all my time working on something. All of this work wearies me and leaves me exhausted.”

That’s how I feel sometimes. Between teaching my own children, teaching other folks’ children, engaging in volunteer work in my community and parish and attending to sick family, scraped knees, dirty dishes, and piles of laundry, I could work non-stop 24 hours a day. And I’d still have tasks left over!  Then let’s throw in updating our kitchen, family outings, fun sewing projects, and the many other things that make life delicious but also busier.

Lately I’ve been tired. Sometimes tired and grumpy.  I don’t like it.  I wonder if I am over-committed but everything I do is important; I can’t imagine what I would give up without hurting somebody. But if I’m hurting myself, I won’t be much good to anybody. In my gentle parenting ministry, I often urge parents to find balance and to carve out moments of peace every, single day. I wonder if I’m doing a poor job of following my own advice.

I’m really truly wondering, considering, and praying about this during Lent. Yes, it’s Lent. This is a time when I should be slowing down, taking a Great Pause, to reflect and pray, yet I feel like I’m struggling more than ever to find time for sincere, focused prayer. Lent seems to have got sucked into my lungs and I can’t breathe out. I want my Lent to be meaningful and full of epiphanies, but I’m still waiting. Waiting and a little tired.

Krzmarzick says he finds comfort in the Scripture passage “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt.11:28)” but he wonders why he has to hit a wall before he can turn to Christ for rest.

And God wants to give us rest because it is good and holy and necessary, not just when we are tired and weary from our labor, and not just when we need it and can’t go on without taking a break. We need regular rest because when we stop to rest we remember our blessings, and when we feel blessed, we turn to God in praise.

We need rest not just to recover from all that hard work we’re doing, but so that we can pay attention. When we are crazy busy it’s certainly harder to pay attention, especially when we work ourselves into the ground. God needs our attention to reveal himself. Krzmarzick shares that he gives God that attention through quiet meditation. He takes ten minutes to close his eyes, calm his mind, settle his heart, and rest so that he can notice God holding him in his hands.

While I agree with him, two things come to mind.  First, sometimes busy-ness is unavoidable, even the busy-ness that brings us to our knees. Parents with young babies who parent responsively and with great generosity are demonstrating extraordinary courage, patience, and fortitude. It’s hard. Sometimes we don’t sleep enough. Our bodies hurt. But we are doing the right thing. This is very different from the parent who is exhausted because they don’t know how to say “no” or they are over-committed because of pride or greed, however subtle.

Whether our exhaustion is a sign of spiritual trouble depends on several things, especially our motivations. Why are we doing what we’re doing? That’s what we need to ask ourselves if we are nearing an empty tank. Are our choices motivated by love or fear? Are our choices making it easier or harder to love God, others, and ourselves?

Second, we can encounter God’s grace and mercy even amidst the chaos and noise of a house full of kids. Hopefully we can carve out some time every day for contemplative, restful, engaged prayer, but some days that’s a tall order. For some parents, closing their eyes for ten minutes seems unthinkable because they have several little ones crawling on their lap and hugging their legs. But we can still tap into those graces. We can pay attention not just during a ten-minute quiet time on the couch in the morning, but even during our ordinary tasks, even when we are feeling drawn away from God by our busy-ness.

In many ways, God is most evident to me in these real, messy, loud moments. In ordinary exchanges with my children, through the give and take of living together, every now and then grace breaks in and I am surprised, astonished by some small truth, and I realize what a gift my life is, what a gift each moment is with my family. If I can practice looking for God in these moments and preparing my heart for such encounters, I know they will come. Even when I’m running on empty, I can feel God holding me in his hand right there while the kids are wrestling on the sofa or riding their bikes on my lawn or putting beetles on the kitchen counter. I don’t always need complete quiet in order to find rest. To find peace-amidst-chaos, I do have to pay attention, to be fully present in the moment. Sometimes we can be physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. Our kids can draw us out of this funk.

But the fact remains, we do need rest. Even the very busiest of parents. As Krzmarzick points out, we are made for rest, we do indeed find God in rest. Even Jesus rested. As I consider my Lent so far, I am looking at my calendar and I’m examining my motivations and deep desires. I think my motivations are good, but sometimes I take on tasks because I fear what somebody will think of me if I refuse a request for help. Worse, sometimes I am seeking admiration or approval when I take on a commitment. Sometimes – maybe usually – the good and bad motivations are there at the same time. This is part of my psychological makeup and it stinks. These habits are improving over time with the grace of God, but I will probably always tend to do too much for the wrong reasons at times.

This Lent, I need to breathe out and I feel I can’t quite do it. I’m stuck on inhale. Sometimes this kind of unrest occurs when we are in a state of spiritual expectation and transition. I’m trying to find a Lenten release, but whether that feels like I’m suffocating or just waiting in expectation depends entirely on my motivations and my relationship with God.  Am I avoiding him or moving toward him? Am I seeking him or self-seeking? God is working on my heart, asking me to look at my choices and my assumptions about what I need and what my family needs to thrive.

I will continue to wait, to consider these things, and to pay attention with God’s assistance. And, of course, part of that journey should include the rest that Krzmarzick is talking about.

Lenten Sacrifices: How Do We Explain Them to Our Kids?

crucifixion of jesus

As we begin Lent, I’m thinking this week about Lenten sacrifices. What is the purpose of our Lenten sacrifices and how do we communicate to our children about that purpose?

When I returned to the Church many years ago, I had very gloomy image of Lent.  I saw Lenten sacrifices as something very negative, something to dread. I am grateful that my spiritual director helped me understand Lenten sacrifices in a relational way.  He explained that quite often our attachments to things or behaviors are getting in the way of our relationship with others, including God. So we make a special effort during Lent to put aside these attachments so they don’t distract us from caring for ourselves and our relationships.  This dying to the self is a practice that we will continue for our entire lives, but Lent is a good time for a special “house cleaning”; we can pause and really look at where we are with God.

Of course, Lenten sacrifices are also a means to charitable giving.  Traditionally, Christians abstained from meat during Lent partly so that they could use the money they saved on meat to give to the poor, to those who couldn’t afford meat.  I think we’ve lost this original meaning in Catholic culture, so that others see us as a self-punishing, masochistic bunch.

So, with my own kids, I try to remind them of this deeper meaning of Lenten sacrifices. We sacrifice things that are hurting our relationships or are preventing us from growing closer to God. We can also use the money we save on desserts or toys to meet a need in our community.  If our kids are too young to understand this concept, I wonder why we are encouraging them to give up desserts or their toys.  My concern: If our primary explanation to our kids for Lenten sacrifices goes something like “Jesus suffered, so we want to suffer with him,” I wonder if we are sending an unfortunate message to them. Are we saying that Jesus wants them to suffer because he suffered? I think I had this impression as a young woman and that is why my first Lent after returning to the Church was not liberating in the way it is for some folks.

 When my friend Kathryn’s mom had cancer, Kathryn was going to shave her hair off as her mom faced chemotherapy. All her hair – gone! She was doing this to walk in solidarity with her mom when her hair began to fall out.  She was willing to suffer with her mom not for the suffering’s sake, but because she loved her mother and wanted to support her in her time of need.  She didn’t want to suffer so that she would love her mom more; she was willing to suffer because she already loved her mom so much that she couldn’t help but make this offering. Kathryn’s mom ended up seeking alternative cancer treatment and never had chemotherapy after all, but Kathryn’s love for her mom and her willingness to shave off her hair to show her mom that “we’re in this together” is very different from Kathryn wanting to suffer or to get cancer herself so that she could know and love her mom better. She already knew and loved her mom, and the offering of sacrifice was a mature and extraordinary way of showing it.

Some of you will disagree with me here, and I welcome your engagement on this issue. (But please be respectful and civil. My feelings can be hurt like everyone else’s.) Maybe Kathryn’s sacrifice is exactly like giving up candy or beer or computer games. Maybe giving up these things is precisely the kind of solidarity Kathryn wanted to show to her mother and that Jesus wants from us. But it seems different to me.  I, as a grown-up, am still moving to that place spiritually where I want to identify fully with the suffering Christ. That is at the top of the spiritual maturity ladder and I’m nowhere near that.

My goal as the spiritual director of my kids is to help them love Jesus more, to draw closer to him, to want to know him as a real person who cares about them. Yes, I hope they eventually love Jesus enough to die for him on their own cross, but they are still so young. First I need to lead them to love and to mercy, and then to a willingness to live in pain for Jesus. But I guess don’t want to start with the pain. I don’t think the pain will make them love Jesus more.  The fact is, life brings with it suffering. Ordinary life gives me plenty of opportunity to teach my kids about offering their sufferings to God. I don’t want them to seek out suffering or to think in some way that they need to want suffering in order to be a good Christian.

Perhaps I can do with my own little directees as my spiritual director did with me when I returned to the Church: I can talk to them about the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to love themselves, other people, and God. I can lead them in love, with gentleness, to practice little sacrifices in these areas. But I would still want to teach this in the context of their growing affection for Jesus.

 What do you think?

40 Days in the Desert

Cactus Pic

Displaying a cactus in our home during Lent reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. Our family purchased a mini cactus at Walmart and printed a simple card with a picture of Jesus in the desert and the scripture passage “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3)

The cactus and prayer card can be placed in a prominent place in your home or on a prayer table as inspiration for reflection. Or use the following prayers and activities based on Jesus’ responses to the devil’s three temptations. Let Jesus‘ time in the desert inspire your family to respond generously to God’s will as you travel through the desert of Lent.

FAST

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3)

Dear God, please help me to do what You want me to do, even when I really want something else.

Fast:  Give up one of your favorite things to eat

ALMSGIVING

“The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” (Deut. 6:13)

Dear God, please help me to remember that You are more important than all of my toys, my clothes, and anything else in my life.

 Almsgiving:  Clean out your room and give some of your extra clothes or toys to a charity.

PRAYER

“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Deut. 6:16)

Dear God, please help me to completely trust You with everything in my life.

 Prayer:  Show God you trust Him by spending time in prayer every day.

 

Explaining Lent to Our Children

As a new mom, I used to look at my sweet, innocent pre-school aged son and wonder how to explain this Lenten season to him. Would I wait for him to ask me questions? What if he never did? Or worse…what if he did? How would I answer?

While the Christmas season found me gushing to my young son about the Christ child and a humble manger and that beautiful star of Bethlehem, Lent left me speechless. How was I to describe this very difficult part of Jesus’ story, of our story, to him?

crown of thornsThe day when I had to answer that question came before I was ready. We were at church, lighting candles in the chapel when my then three-year-old looked at a particularly bloody Jesus nailed to a cross. “Mommy,” he asked me, “how did Jesus get up there?”

“You mean, how did that cross get hung up there?” I teased him towards an easier question to answer. He didn’t take the bait.

“No.” He pushed further. “Who put Jesus on there?”

Cue butterflies filling the stomach. Had I been wrong in not bringing it up to him first? Was this going to be a shocking blow? My mind scrambled for the right words. How much should I say? How deep into the story should I go?

Before I opened my mouth to speak, I thought of all I’ve learned from my mother, a woman who, with my dad, pretty successfully raised six children. Once, when my sister’s daughter began asking questions about death, I overheard my mom’s advice for handling the situation: “Let your daughter lead these difficult discussions. Too often, we explain these things to kids at a level too deep for them to understand. We forget that it’s children, not adults, asking these hard questions. And we end up answering them as if they’re adults. You’ll be surprised to find that the simplest answers are all they’re usually seeking at the moment. No more. So start simple and let them lead.”

Start simple. I thought of what my son’s three-year-old mind understood. Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Cops and robbers. Good guys and bad guys.

“Well,” I began carefully, “there were bad men who didn’t like Jesus…”

“…and they hurt him?” my son finished.

“Yes,” I answered. I waited, wondering if I should elaborate but willing myself to follow my child’s lead.

“Oh,” he said easily. “I don’t like those bad men.”

I searched my son’s eyes for tears or anger. Instead, I saw compassion as he stared at the crucifix.

“Mommy,” he asked, “can I kiss his boo-boos and make them better?”

“Of course,” I whispered.

As I watched my child approach the crucifix, leaning to kiss Jesus’ nailed feet and reaching up to kiss his bloodied side, my fear and anxiety were replaced with love and peace, and gratitude for my mother’s shared wisdom.

“Let’s go find Daddy,” my son exclaimed, bolting into the church. I almost stopped him. I was ready now. I could do this. I almost wanted to go into further detail about just how much our Lord suffered for our sins, but my son was already at my husband’s side, choosing a pew for Mass.

As usual, my mom was right. My child asked what seemed like a big question, but all he wanted was a simple answer. The difficult details, I know, will fill in as he grows. As his mind gets bigger, so will the answers. But, for now, he’s satisfied.

And so am I.

Last Minute Ideas for Your Family’s Lenten Journey

IMG_3038

A few last minute tips from Marcia Mattern and me to start your family’s Lenten journey on the right foot.  From recent posts on our family blogs:

Favorite read-aloud books for Lent:  Kim shares her family’s favorite books for the Lenten season.

Family altar tips:  Kim shares the symbolism behind the objects she places on  her family altar during Lent.  Also ideas for Ash Wednesday and a salt dough crown with 40 “thorns.”

Accepting the blank page of no plans:  Don’t have all your plans in order?  So what.  Marcia says she won’t be making any grandiose plans this Lent; that she will prepare by being “empty.”  Wow.

Fitting prayer in during Lent:  Marcia acknowledges that it’s hard for busy parents to find time to pray, but that we should at least pray more often.  Practical suggestions.

Don’t worry if  you don’t have everything planned out and in place. God doesn’t need fancy plans to bring blessings on our families during Lent.  He just needs our hearts and our ears.

Longing

It has been a Lent of longing for me.  A longing for the consolation of God, a longing for deep and meaningful friendships, a longing to make my wonderful marriage even better, and, yes, a longing for all of those desserts that I gave up.  And now I long to lay my eyes on the images in our church that are shrouded in purple–to see the Easter lilies adorn the altar as a symbol of new life, hope, and eternal joy.

Lenten crossLiving with longing is difficult.  Our human nature, a victim of today’s culture, wants to “fix it”–fix it now!  Our bodies and our hearts yearn to be satisfied.  But that is not the purpose of Lent.  Satisfaction as we know it on earth does not fulfill us, but rather the realization that God alone can satisfy.

A child with a healthy attachment to his parents misses them deeply when they are away.  He longs for them because he loves them–because in his small world, they are the mirror that reflects who he is.  They are his life.

This is why we sacrifice.  This is why we struggle to accept God’s plan when things or people we love are taken away from us.  This is why we carry on in faith when even God Himself seems to have disappeared from our interior life.

Because our attachments need to be tested.  It is when we recognize our longings that we know where we are headed.  This is yet another way to become like those little children who yearn for the love of their parents.  This is how we know if our heart will lead the rest of our being to do whatever it takes to return to our Father in heaven.

This Holy Week, I will look at those shrouds of purple, the bare church, and the solemn faces of the faithful, and embrace the uncomfortable feeling of loneliness, starvation, and longing that envelops me.  Because that is exactly how I should be feeling.  Because that is causing my Lord’s heart to swell with love and gratefulness that His child recognizes she is nothing without Him.

The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper

The Last Supper, Duccio

The Last Supper, Duccio

I was scheduled to be on “More2Life” with Dr. Greg & Lisa Popcak this  morning, but Dr. Greg is sick and has lost his voice!  Prayers for you, Dr. Greg.  We all hope you recover quickly.  I  thought I would briefly explore the topic we were going to discuss on the show:  “The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper.”

Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum, and the day we recall the Last Supper.  At the Last Supper, Christ instituted the Eucharist as a supernatural banquet that nourishes believers spiritually. He also washed the feet of the 12 Apostles in an act of profound humility.  How do we, as Catholic parents, live in concrete ways the significance of the Last Supper in our own homes?

The Domestic Church Images the Eucharist 

The Second Vatican Council called our families “the domestic church” because we image and participate in the work of the Universal Church.  In fact, families are critical to the mission of the church.  Just as the Universal Church repeats Christ’s sacrifice on the altar at every Mass for the benefit and unity of all believers, so we parents as heads of our domestic church feed our families spiritually through the sacrifices we make as parents.

Parents have the grave duty to form their children’s spiritual lives.  It takes time and planning, but as heads of our domestic church, we have to recognize our supreme role in leading our children to Heaven.  Our families need to pray together and live a Christ-centered life within our homes.  In addition, we feed our children spiritually when we treat them with dignity and respect.  Children are made in the image and likeness of God: they have the capacity for self-giving, selfless love.  But when their parents scare them, hit them, ignore them, or focus only on their external achievements, children are distanced from that capacity within themselves.  John Paul II exhorted the domestic church to become “communities of love” as witnesses to the world.  When we take that extra moment and go that extra mile to understand things from our child’s perspective, to discern their true needs not just what we assume they need, to guard their hearts, we are building up our communities of love.

Gathering our little flock at family dinners is one of the most beautiful ways we image The Last Supper in our homes.  As we sacrifice our time and energy to present a beautiful meal to our children, and often extended family and friends, we are providing an opportunity for communion. Communion is an exchange of gifts, not just mom or dad doing all the sharing and giving.  We can provide opportunities for our children to share their ideas and talents at the table, and to work with us to present the family meal.

The Washing of Feet: We Kneel Down to Exalt Our Children

At the Last Supper, Christ kneeled down and washed the feet of the disciples in an act of humility that has reverberated through history.  If you attend Mass tonight you will see your priest imitating this same action on the altar:  He will wash the feet of 12 men (sometimes men and women).  Well we parents imitate this action daily in our parenting vocation.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that in this moment of the feet washing, Christ was taking on the task of a slave.  It shows that “God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us to exalt us.  The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be so small.”  He kneels down before to exalt us.  Wow.

We parents image this action every day.  We literally wash our children’s feet.  We wipe their dirty bottoms, clean their boogery noses, and clip their toenails.  Parents are willing to make themselves small in order to keep their children clean and healthy.  But this extends to our child’s emotional health as well.  Creating an atmosphere in our homes that fosters strong bonding and connection usually means parents have to make themselves small in some way: Dad has to do the dishes so Mom can nurse the baby, both parents have to sacrifice achievement outside the home in order to do what’s right for their family, we let our kids put capes and wigs on us so they can be in charge of play sometimes.  Making ourselves small in these ways raises up our children in dignity.

When we’re having a tough day, I hope we can remember Benedict’s wisdom.  When we kneel down in order to exalt our children, we are imaging Christ at the Last Supper.  We all hope our homes will become holy and peaceful; we all hope we will have the wisdom and charity to create an atmosphere that reflects what the Holy Family’s home might have looked like.  But we’re dealing daily with the effects of sin and the hand of the Devil trying to muck up everything we do.  We move toward conversion through grace, with our families resting in the hand of God.  Conversion in our homes doesn’t happen all at once.  God offers us small opportunities for conversion as we walk our path together as a family. When we make sacrifices and surrender our own needs in order to help our children become stronger emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I think we are participating in a very real way Christ’s work of conversion.

Have a blessed Holy Thursday with your families, the domestic church.

Living Lent with Children

Family life is by nature chaotic.  Kids are messy, poopy, boogery, and sometimes moody.  We love ’em, but they don’t make life neat and orderly.  In contrast, for some us, our perfect vision of Lent is very quiet, serene, contemplative, even monastic.   Are we parents left outside the gates during Lent, merely admiring the transformation going on inside where the “real” spiritual people are?  Of course not.  Even amidst the chaos of parenting, not only can we fall more in love with Christ during Lent, but so can our children.  I explored this topic today with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their wonderful radio show More2Life on Ave Maria Radio.

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

I so appreciated the Popcaks’ immediate focus on the primary purpose of Lent.  They have a way of cutting to the chase, don’t they?  They stated that the primary purpose of Lent for us isn’t suffering and sacrifice; it’s growing in our love for God.  This issue has really bothered me lately.  When I asked the kids in my CCD class “what is Lent” most of them didn’t know what it was.  Unfortunate.  But it’s equally unfortunate that the few who did recognize the word “Lent” described it as something like “oh, that’s when we can’t eat candy” or “that’s when we have to give stuff away”.

I’m going to be frank here.  I believe that if we focus with our kids on sacrifice and suffering during Lent without leading them to a deeper knowledge of Christ’s love, without a deeper knowledge of the blessings awaiting them in friendship with Christ, the sacrifices are pretty pointless.  And if the sacrifices are too painful for children, they will develop a resentment for the faith.  Lent is about responding to God’s call for transformation, not seeing how tough we are and how long we can go without protein.  I mean, our sacrifices can be incredible signs of commitment, but they’re only holy if they are grounded in love.

We can lead our kids through Lent so that their eyes are trained on the beauty of our Faith.  Let’s consider the 3 Pillars of Lent (fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) and how we can live them out with children in a way that draws us into closer relationship and kinship to Christ, our Savior.  I love the framework that the 3 Pillars provides us, because it reminds us that we need to be open to Christ’s love (prayer) and we need to be capable of mercy for others (almsgiving) if we want to live fully the Easter message.  If we live out the 3 Pillars with the goal of connecting with our children so that they can in turn connect with Christ, I think they’ll look forward to Lent every year!

FASTING & SACRIFICE   

By sacrificing food and things we find pleasurable during Lent, we are participating in Christ’s sacrifice so that we can understand him better and be a better friend to him.   Explain to your kids that the Church isn’t trying to punish us!  Older children comprehend this point, but younger kids will have a hard time with it.  The kids in my CCD class were a little perplexed by this.  What?!  Why would we give up our toys for anyone?  For little ones, we can explain to them that during Lent we all give up something in order to remember what Jesus gave up for us.  They still may not get it this year, but as we return to our family rituals and Lenten traditions each year, rituals & traditions that our grounded in love and joy, they will get it eventually.

Making a family sacrifice:  If your family is new to observing Lent, you can start with making a family sacrifice.  Talk about which pleasure you’d like to give up.  T.V. at least one day a week?  Your Saturday night pizza?  Even if you make individual sacrifices in your family, you can still have one family sacrifice.   This year my family is giving up all technology one day a week.  Sharing a commitment that is challenging shapes the character of your whole family as a unit, not just the individual members.  It’s also a lot easier to give up something you like when you have a team supporting you!

Individual sacrifices:  If your children are old enough, you can begin helping them decide on a sacrifice for Jesus during Lent.   I personally always let my children decide what they want to sacrifice, if anything.  For the littlies, this sacrifice business can be so hard.  Really they’re just practicing a bit at sacrifice, right?  If they’re too little to understand what it’s all about, the sacrifice might be plain torment.  They might fear their special toy will never return or that they’ll never get to eat ice cream ever again.  Having a Lenten calendar or bean counter can be helpful at this age, because they can see clearly that there’s an end to their sacrifice.  Lacy over at Catholic Icing has a nice Lenten calendar that the kids can color each day of Lent.  Lisa Popcak shared how she makes a dough crown with 42 toothpicks inserted at the beginning of Lent, then each day her child pulls out a toothpick for a sacrifice he or she made.  At the end of Lent, they paint the crown gold!  Love that!  Lisa is connecting with her child as a mom, connecting her child’s heart to Christ’s story, and helping her child see the progress she’s made during Lent.

PRAYER

Our sacrifices must always be grounded in prayer, otherwise they can just make us feel smug about our self-control.  If sacrifice is meant to draw us into kinship with Christ, then we need to talk to him, not only alone but as a family.  Make a Lenten family prayer plan.  Praying together regularly will deepen the faith of each family member, and will strengthen your family identity.  Decide where, when, and what you’ll pray.   If you don’t have a plan, family prayer may not happen.

Small children love to have visual aids during prayer. Pretty prayer cards or homemade prayer books are a great way to help children feel connected to what they’re saying.   A few years ago my family began praying the Stations of the Cross in our home during Lent.  The Stations lead us reverantly and rhythmically through the last hours of Christ’s life.  Praying the Stations as a family has been a potent lesson for us in humility and self-giving love.  I have the lovely picture book The Story of the Cross:  The Stations of the Cross for Children by Mary Joslin, which leads children through each station with accompanying prayers.  The images in Joslin’s book bring home the message of Christ’s journey to the Christ, but I’d love to snag this gorgeous Stations of the Cross Tree handcrafted by the talented ladies at Jesse Tree Treasures.

stations of the cross ornaments

 

Last year during Lent, my teenager also reads The Way of the Cross by the great Catholic mystic Caryll Houselander.  Houselander provides a meditative essay for each Station that draws you into each scene along The Way of the Cross.

Again, our goal is to help our children love Jesus through the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.  So, I try to ensure my kids recall the full Gospel narrative as much as possible — the entire story of Christ’s birth and ministry — as it’s set against the crucifixion and resurrection, so that they understand, or may come to understand, his Story on a visceral, more profound level.

ALMSGIVING

Making a family giving plan for Lent is the third pillar of our family Lenten practice.  Helping the needy is a seems to be a natural impulse for children:  If we present the opportunity they are almost always eager to do something to help the sick or poor.   You can donate money to a charity, but why not raise the money together by having a garage sale – get rid of your excess so you can bless others?  You can donate your time to some cause that’s important to your whole family.

Don’t forget opportunities for “almsgiving” within your own family.  The needy live at your address!  Lisa Popcak pointed out on the show that each day ordinary family life presents us with opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Invite your school aged child to practice the works of mercy by feeding her baby sister (feeding the hungry) or bringing soup to her sick brother (caring for the sick) or teaching her little brother his catechism (instructing the ignorant).  This is all Lenten almsgiving, all acts of love.

So there we go, we can live Lent for Real with Our Little Ones, even amidst the gooey diapers and mushy cereal!

A Lenten Love Story

year of faith photoLent is the season to fall in love.  I’m not talking about the earthly kind of love that will forever be marred by the fall of man and the presence of sin and evil in the world, but a different kind of love.  What if you fell deeply in love with someone who you could fully trust to always be working for your best interests, even in the most dire of circumstances?  What if you could surrender yourself to someone with complete faith that you would never be disappointed in your decision to do so?  What if you fell deeply in love with someone who had the infallible ability to help you reach your fullest potential, and who would go to the greatest lengths to give you every opportunity to choose to become all you were created to be?

This is divine love, and it’s ours to receive.  During Lent, we are called to grow closer to God.  Sacrifice, repentance, acts of charity, prayer, and scripture study are all wonderful ways to embrace God, but as Catholics we have an obligation that runs much deeper than that.

When we love God, we are also called to love Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  And when we love Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we are Lenten crosscalled to love the Church that Jesus established, as well as it’s leaders who have been blessed with the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  We never reject the gifts of those we love most when they are given in the true spirit of charity.  A homemade card from one of my children with words of love crudely written and misspelled all over it melts my heart faster than any gift they could buy at a store for me.  Their deep love and trust is obvious as they hand me something that took time, effort, and humility as they struggled to create it within the limitations of their young years.

So it is with Christ and His Church.  He handed us this great gift when He handed His body over to be broken for us.  He loved us so much that He gave us the Church and her leaders to impart that love for the rest of time.  He trusted that we would embrace every aspect of the precepts of the Church for which He gave time, effort, and humble suffering as He experienced the struggle between His divine love and human qualities in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He trusted that because we love Him, we would also faithfully love His Church.

When I first fell in love with my husband, I found myself willing to overlook his weaknesses, quirky personality traits, and annoying habits.  As that love deepened and matured within the sacrament of marriage, we have both had times when we felt compelled to start a difficult conversation out of concern for the other’s soul, but the commitment has remained strong and our self-giving love for each other has endured.  How much easier it should be to love a perfect God who only wants what is right and good for us!  A soul that is burning with the fire of love for God wants nothing more than to seek always His presence and guiding hand.  It thirsts for the knowledge that will monitor every thought, every impulse, and every human tendency to be sure we are being led, body and soul, into the arms of our Savior.  A soul filled with love for God wants to immerse itself in the fullness of His truth so as to remain always consumed by the magnitude of His omniscience without any risk of falling into the snares of this world.

What a gift Christ left us with the establishment of His Church!  The rich, 2,000 year old legacy of the Catholic Church is filled with saints who inspire us, leaders who guide us, sacraments that fill us with the presence and graces of Jesus Himself, and limitless resources that quench our thirst for the truth.  It’s up to us to prove our love for Christ and His Church by choosing what guides us carefully.

Choose trusted Catholic publishers and authors.  Seek out the advice of your parish priest, catechetical leader, or the owner of your local Catholic bookstore for recommendations in reference to any topic.  I’ve discovered that the Church has an answer for everything.  While some of her answers may be difficult to understand or accept, it is our obligation as Catholics to persevere in our quest for the truth.  Often one good Catholic resource leads to another, and God will reward our perseverence with wisdom and clarity.  The deeper we delve into the study of our faith, the deeper we move into the corners of our souls, dusting off past sins both known and unknown.  This is a great gift, as it carries the potential for conversion of heart and reconciliation with God.

The people and resources who guide us should incorporate not only scripture, but also information from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the wisdom of the Magisterium, Church Tradition, and saints.  As I heard on a Catholic Answers Live radio broadcast one day, “As Jesus ascended into heaven, He didn’t say, ‘Be sure to read my Book.’”  He left us His apostles with Peter appointed as the first great leader.  The Holy Spirit gifted them with the ability to lead us to correct interpretation of scripture and other resources the Church offers, a grace that is passed down to today’s pope and priests. 

This Lent, read a good Catholic book, listen to a broadcast on Catholic radio, watch a show on EWTN, or “Like” a Catholic themed Facebook page.   Fan the flames of your love for God by falling in love with His Church and allow your children to watch your love story evolve.  I’ve heard the best lessons in life are caught, not taught.  Children know what authentic love looks like.  The words of faith that we try to teach them will fall on deaf ears if they cannot sense our own hearts bursting with joyful love for the Church from whence they came.  Open your heart and trust in God’s love as you journey into deeper union with Him through the gift of the Catholic Church. 

“Keep close to the Catholic Church at all times, for the Church alone can give you true peace, since she alone possesses Jesus, the true Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.” –St. Padre Pio

Some Catholic resources that have inspired me recently:

Books

Story of a Soul:  The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, Third Edition Translated from the Original Manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D., ICS Publications

Full of Grace:  Women and the Abundant Life by Johnnette S. Benkovic, Servant Books.  This can be read alone or incorporated into a women’s bible study.

A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul by Lisa M. Hendey

Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales

The Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West

Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons? And 199 other questions from Catholic teenagers by Matthew J. Pinto

Parenting With Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak

The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic by Matthew Kelly

Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly

Magnificat.  A fantastic monthly booklet featuring daily Mass scripture, morning prayers, evening prayers, night prayers, meditations, stories of the saints, and much more.

Websites

www.dynamiccatholic.com

This is the brain child of Matthew Kelly and contains a wealth of Catholic resources.  He has a wonderful collection of Catholic books that are available for only the cost of shipping and handling.  If you have the means and the motivation to do so, you can also purchase these same books for an extremely reasonable bulk price to distribute to members of your parish.)

www.womenofgrace.com

This is where you can find Johnnette Benkovic’s bible study kit to accompany her book I listed above.

www.catholic.com

The home of Catholic Answers–I use this website often to search for authentic Catholic answers to questions on almost any topic that arise.  You can also listen to episodes of their radio show here.

www.exceptionalmarriages.com

You can find fantastic resources here from Greg and Lisa Popcak, including podcasts of their wonderful radio show, More2Life.

Of course, this list is just the tip of the iceberg.  Have fun exploring and falling in love with your Catholic faith this Lent!

Image credit (Lenten cross):  Charissa Ragsdale (photos.com)

He Washes Our Feet All Through Our Lives

Today we begin the Sacred Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.   Father James Farfaglia presents a very clear explanation of the liturgical significance of each day in the Triduum in his article The Happy Priest:  Triduum, the Three Days Leading to Easter.

If you attend the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight, you’ll witness an extraordinary moment when at least one priest washes the feet of 12 men representing the Apostles.  When Christ washed the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper, it’s significance reverberated through the heavens and hell.  A great act of humility by the Son of God demonstrates to mankind for all history the tenderness of our God, who came down from on high to kneel before us.

The Holy Father explains that if we could only embrace a little of this Spirit of Servanthood, the world might be transformed:

When the Lord of the world comes and undertakes the slave’s task of foot-washing — which is an illustration of the way he washes our feet all through our lives — we have a totally different picture.  God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us so as to exalt us.  The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be so small . . . Only when power is changed from the inside, and we accept Jesus and his way of life, whose whole self is there in the action of foot-washing, only then can the world be healed and the people be able to live at peace with one another.  Pope Benedict XVI

How extraordinary that on the night of his betrayal, the greatest betrayal in history, Christ also signaled the dawn of self-gift.  We hurt one another.  We are all guilty of betrayal.  We have all been betrayed.  Can we respond to one another with self-gift instead of retribution?  Self-giving love is the only true love.  As we enter these days of solemnity, may we strive to create homes that model for our children the humility of Christ and real love of self-donation.  May we strive to create sanctuaries of truth where our families become symbols of healing and peace for the entire world.