We're getting closer and closer to one of the most recognizable seasons of the Church's liturgical year: Lent. Purple cloth will soon be everywhere, gold vessels will be replaced with silver, and fish fry advertisements will start showing up in bulletins across the country.
Lent is one of those times of the year that I yearn for......and dread....all at the same time. Every year, I come up with grand plans as to how I'm going to use the season to nurture my faith, both as an individual, and as a member of a family. And every year, God throws me for a loop: we'll spend the entire Lenten season potty training the child that finally decided he was ready, leaving my plans of starting our day with daily Mass behind, or we'll get 40 days of sicknesses that lead to interrupted plans of routine prayer, or...well, you get the idea.
This year, I think we've decided to focus on Lent in a different manner: simply. It kind of continues the theme of our past year, as we quiet down home life and professional life. Instead of coming up with a huge list of sacrifices and prayer and almsgiving.....we're keeping it simple. I'm hopeful that these small changes will lead to a great deepening of faith, both in my private faith and as an entire family.
So, how exactly does one DO a "Simply Lent" kind of Lent? For us, it's going to be a combination of things that will hopefully mortify all of our senses. Here's what it looks like, concentrating on the three "pillars" of Lent (Penance, Prayer, Almsgiving):
We typically each pick an individual penance, and then find something to "give up" as a family for Lent. In addition to this, we used to do meatless Fridays. However, we've pretty much switched to an almost all meatless diet over the past six months, thanks to my gall bladder and the fact that I'm the one who does the majority of the cooking, so meatless Fridays are going to have to be replaced by some other act of penance. It was hard to come up with something that would be significant for the whole family on Fridays, but as I watched our day to day schedules and lives over the past few weeks, I realized something: while we don't necessarily "give in" to the treat of meat anymore, we do give in to quite a few other treats. One of them, I realized, had to do with the first thing I do on any given day: I turn on the radio.
We don't have a typical radio in our house, but what we do have is a TV that connects to Pandora. Pretty much every single day, I ask one of the boys to "put music on" as I'm making breakfast. This one simple action starts our day, and that noise continues on throughout the entire day. We usually listen to Broadway show tunes, which are loud and fun and goofy (most of the time). I realized that a simple change to this routine would drastically change how things worked around the house - and we'd all notice the difference. Music is a constant in our house - and "giving it up" would be quite the sacrifice for all of us.
Instead of going completely music-free in the house, we're going to try to keep it simple. I just went through our Pandora account and deleted every single station option, except for a few: a classical piano one, a Gregorian chant one, and a quiet Christian contemporary one. On every day except Friday, we can still have music on in the house, but it must be one of these quiet, more prayerful stations. On Fridays, we will have no music whatsoever. I'm hopeful that this experience will allow us to "hear" God in the silence of our every day lives.....AND in the words we speak to each other.
In addition to this family penance, each of us will choose one individual penance to focus on throughout the season of Lent. I haven't fully decided mine yet, but I have a few ideas of simple, yet extremely influential, things that I can remove from my daily life that will help me to remember the sacrifice on the Cross on a fairly regular basis.
This is a hard one for me. For being such a routine-oriented person, I struggle with implementing a concrete prayer routine on a private basis. I honestly think it's the nature of parenting: it's hard to stick to a structured routine when there are so many variables involved, and variables are an inherent part of raising children (sickness, refereeing fighting children, someone's hungry, something got spilled, etc). However, I recognize the need for it *and* more than anything else, I recognize the need in teaching my children the importance of deepening a personal prayer life.
For all the unpredictability of daily life, our schedule does often stay pretty much the same. There really isn't any reason why I can't schedule in time to spend with God in private prayer. I can make excuses until my face turns blue....but the truth is, they are just excuses. For years now, I've tried to get up early before the kids and spend the first few minutes of my day in prayer. Time and time again, it's proven to me just how incredibly impossible that is.....in MY daily life. Our home schedule doesn't really work in that manner - but what it does do is give me other time during the day that I can spend in private prayer. I have finally reached a point where I feel ready to accept that what works for other moms and people that I know (getting up before the kids), just doesn't work for me. Between the dogs getting excited because Mom being awake = breakfast time, and the excited dogs waking up the kids who aren't quite ready for that wake up call and are then grumpy and out-of-sorts.......it just doesn't work. And you know what? That's okay. What works for another mom doesn't have to work for me.
When I sat back and looked at our daily schedule, I realized something. I *always* have a significant chunk of time after breakfast has been eaten and cleaned up and before we start school. I typically spend that time wasting precious moments on Facebook or other sites, or catching up on other chores that need to be done. The kids are always happily playing together, fully rested and fed, the dogs are back to their regular position of couch potato-ing after their tummies have been filled, and we haven't jumped into our lesson plan for the day yet. I typically don't schedule appointments until after this point of the day, either, because I hate trying to get us out of the door quickly in the morning. Instead of trying to fit my prayer life into someone else's schedule......what allowing God into my own daily schedule? It only takes about 20 minutes to say a daily rosary, and I know that I waste that same amount of time (and then some) every morning on the computer. Instead of sitting at the kitchen counter, staring at a glowing box.......I will spend that time in prayer. As an added bonus, I'm hoping that the boys being awake to see me doing this will lead them to think about adding it into their own Lenten plans.
As a family, I've noticed that one of the things we're really good at doing is praying for intentions every night at bedtime. We spend a lot of time in supplication: asking God for blessings or to grant our intentions. What we *don't* do a lot of is spending time in prayer praising God. I'm hoping a family blessings jar will increase our prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude - and allow us to see God at work in our daily lives on a regular basis.
A few years ago, I used this blog as part of my Lenten plan. I posted a picture, on a daily basis, of a blessing that I'd received or noticed that day. It was honestly one of my favourite Lenten seasons - I ended that forty day period confident in God's presence in our lives, even as we were dealing with various struggles. I'm hoping to modify this experience a bit, and expand it to a family activity.....that maybe we'll continue with throughout the rest of the year. I have two little boys that struggle especially with what I would nickname a "martyr complex." Everyone and everything in the entire world is there to make their lives miserable - challenging them to find a silver lining or blessing is difficult. Seeing as they're also my two readers/writers, this activity will hopefully work the best for them.
In the main room of our house, we have a small prayer table. I typically change what is on it based on the current liturgical season. Candles are the colour of the season, Advent wreaths are kept there before Christmas, flowers are left there for Mary on feast days, and I usually really simplify it for Lent. In addition to our typical purple candle this year, I'm going to add two large mason jars. One I will explain in a minute, but the second jar will be labeled simply with a heart (symbolizing Love). I'll have slips of paper and pencils on a nearby bookshelf. Every time we experience a blessing that day (or an experience of God's Love), we'll write it down on a sheet of paper and place it in the jar. On Easter morning - the day we are celebrating the Love that redeemed us - we will read the blessings as a family. I plan on sharing some of my daily blessings here, too - hopefully inspiring others to see blessings in their own lives.
I will admit that we often do our family tithing without the boys really knowing what is going on. We'll write a check or make a donation in the family's name....but the boys aren't really involved in the decision or aware that it has even happened. That's something I hope to get better at doing on a regular basis, instead of just at Christmas with the giving tree, or random trips to the grocery store for a food bank.
Above, I mentioned that there would be two new mason jars on our prayer table, one of which will be our "blessings jar." The second one will simply be labeled with a cross - the sign of the ultimate sacrifice. Next to it will be a small dish of pennies.
Each time that we make a sacrifice (either the penance that we determined earlier, or an additional one, like helping a family member or letting someone else go first or have the last apple (a delicacy in this house, haha!)), we will add a penny to the mason jar. On Easter Sunday, we'll change those pennies into dollar bills and let the boys add them to the collection basket at Mass. I contemplated letting them choose another charity to donate to, but I really want them to recognize that our parish does provide quite a few services to our community and that it is up to us parishioners to make sure that those services continue.
So, I think that's how the Circus will be observing Lent this year: simplifying and trying to keep things meaningful without getting overwhelmed. I have other ideas bouncing around in my head (as always), but I think that this Lent, God is really calling me to listen and let Him move in my life. I can't do that if I push ahead with over-ambitious plans like I normally do during this season of renewal and repentance. It's hard for me to slow down and allow Him the power to work in my life (because, I can do it all, you know!), but that's not what He wants from me. Putting all those plans and ambitions between me and Him only shows my true prideful nature: I can do it all on my own. That's just not true: I *need* Him and I need Him to be the one leading me to sanctification. He will show me how to get to Heaven...if I just stop and listen to the directions!