by Dr. MaryRuth Hackett, first published on SpiritualDirection.com
Growing up Protestant, Lent just was not much of a thing in my home.
I saw banners for the Friday Fish Fry at the local Catholic Church, and McDonald’s would advertise their fish sandwiches, but since I didn’t enjoy seafood it was easy for Lent to pass me by.
When I entered the Church as an adult, I admit I found the menu of possible Lenten practices to adopt as a family overwhelming. Fasting, increasing prayer, paying closer attention to almsgiving, giving up sweets, meats, alcohol, and social media, all while trying to simplify and draw closer to God was not easily done. As a mother of small children, I was lucky to keep us all on track each day in ordinary time, let alone drag them all into a season of penance and sacrifice!
As the years have passed, however, there are a few simple things we have done to mark the season and live differently for the 40 days leading up to Easter, allowing us all to enter into Lent intentionally and without trepidation.
Primarily, Lent is about simplifying and creating space for God and for a deeper relationship with Him. The Church has focused on three aspects of Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The various seasons of life may allow for us to put a deeper focus on one aspect or another, but small steps in all of these three areas can be great starting points for making the Lenten season a special one for you and your family.
The practice of fasting can dominate the minds of many during Lent. In reality, the Church asks that those persons between the ages of 18-59 observe the two days of actual fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). Furthermore, only those children 14 and older are required to abstain from consuming meat on Fridays during Lent. Because these observances are compulsory for adults only, it can be suggested that your children fast from something else on Fridays during Lent. My children have very little say any day what they actually eat, so any abstaining by them is done more as a practical result of having the adults and teens abstain rather than as a personal sacrifice.
Giving up their favorite things for the entirety of Lent, however, is something that should be child-led, rather than done out of obligation.
The point of fasting is to detach oneself spiritually and encounter a deeper union with the Lord. It is to set aside some aspect of your day as a sacrifice. It is not designed to make us unhappy.
Adopting a special practice of prayer during Lent is a beautiful way to become open to a deeper relationshiop with the Lord. The Church doesn’t require specific practices, and it is good to remember that prayer is simply a conversation with the Lord. As we adopt things like fasting, we are able to unite those sacrifices in prayer.
Simply adding an additional prayer each day during Lent can be one way to grow as a family. Starting the day off together in prayer or ending it in a special way together can unite the family and open them all to more deeply receive God’s love.
Modeling is a wonderful way of teaching in the home. If you are adding a special time of prayer each day, share that with your family and even invite them to join you. You may be surprised by their willingness when it is presented as a choice rather than an edict.
Whereas prayer and fasting are a bit more obscure, the practice of almsgiving is something in which children of all ages can easily be involved. Almsgiving is a practice of giving more generously of our time, talents, and physical offerings. We have had experiences in the past working with the homeless, cleaning out closets for those in need, making food bags to offer to those on the streets, and making cards for shut-ins or those in community living circumstances. We know families who have adopted families during this time and held lemonade stands to raise money for those in need. This is a wonderful way for the family to take part in an activity that is child-led.
Simplicity has been the key for our family as we enter into Lent. There is great joy that comes from practicing gratitude and helping others. I want my children to look forward to Lent as a time of peace and perhaps more reflective quiet, rather than as a time of grumpiness and no sweets.
May you enter into this season with a spirit of surrender and anticipation of the graces that flow during this time. Perhaps as your children grow they will begin to see Lent as a time of giving of the self in joy, and growing in closeness to the Lord, rather than only a time of suffering.