Lent is approaching quickly. We literally just took down the Christmas tree. I'm still finding stray ornaments and ribbons here and there. But soon, it will be time to drape the religious pictures and icons and statues in purple and to bring our bodies and our souls into a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Already, my children are discussing what they will "give up" for Lent. It is sounding rather like the conversation we just had on New Year's resolutions. I'd like to refocus a bit. I'd like to take a good look at those three pillars — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — and see how they can better support family life, strengthening our relationships with God and each other.
Our family prayer is structured around the Liturgy of the Hours (a column for another day). My children have a sense of the rhythm of daily prayer in the Church and they pray it in the community of our family.
For Lent, I am going to suggest they work on cultivating a silent prayer time. I have three teenagers with a fourth rapidly approaching and my house is often noisy. I've noticed that teenagers — even quiet ones — are always interested in saying what is on their minds and making sure that they are heard. Rarely do they listen. Rarely, are they silent. As a family, this Lent, we will focus on listening. To God and to each other. My children know how to petition God, but we all need to work on being still and knowing God.
Fasting always ends up looking like a diet around here. Teenaged boys are notorious for weighing and measuring and ensuring that they are fasting and abstaining but never really hungering. We will follow the dietary fasting guidelines of the Church but my sense is that something different might be in order as well.
We need to be hungry for God. What draws us away from each other and away from God? Is it mindless television? Some television actually draws us closer and I know better than to suggest we give up TV during March Madness, but I miss the days when children asked my permission before even turning on the box, and I carefully considered what was inside versus what we could do or be before granting permission. I think we need to get back to that place.
And while we are considering the TV, the computer most definitely needs considering, too. What a solitary, isolating pastime, to stare endlessly into that monitor, one's back to the people we love, in a world that does not even have actual being. Indeed, there must be a way to fast from screens that suck us away from each other.
Perhaps, without the constant companionship of the screens, my children will begin to feel restless. It is my prayer that they learn to hunger for the rest that is only found in God.
When we think of almsgiving, we think of pennies in the rice bowl carton. Certainly, there will be those and for some of my little guys, real sacrifice will be involved there. But I think we can do more. The focus must shift from consumption to service. Teenagers are notoriously short on empathy. They worry so much about the image they present to the world and they think so little of authentic self-giving. The paradox of course, is that they will find their true voices, their true beings, in giving genuinely of themselves. That's when they will settle and be happy.
As a family we need to look not toward gaining more (in terms of both money and stature), but toward giving more. We all have more to give, not so much monetarily, but personally. We have so much to give of ourselves. One sibling to another, one parent toward a child, and spouses toward each other, our refrain can be "What can I do for you?"
I think of how we prepare for company. The house is tidied, the floors are swept, the children are clean and manners are minded. Why do we not offer the same courtesies for Dad at the end of the day? Why is it that we give our best to the outside world? Wouldn't our lives be more authentic and indeed, more genuinely peaceful if we gave our best – our genuine best – to our families first? I want to encourage my children and to remind myself to give generously and selflessly to those at home before we present ourselves to the world and then, to present only our true selves.
The pillars of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — here in our suburban Virginia home are the support structure of a fruitful Lent. The time honored traditions of the Church are relevant and necessary in our modern home. And I trust that they will bring us all closer to the risen Christ as we journey as a family toward Easter.