Symbolism has always been near and dear to my heart. The Catholic faith is full of symbolism and to outsiders some of the traditions may seem strange. But as with anything in life, once one understands the symbols the acts make sense and one becomes emotionally attached to the meanings. One then does something because it is symbolic to them rather than just an obligation to a higher authority. My children are like me in many ways. Like scientists they read and question everything. They are not interested in doing something merely because the Church says to but they want to know why it is meaningful. This is important to me because I want to raise them to embrace their personal spirituality and relationship with God. I will be the first to tell you that for various reasons we do not always go to church on a regular basis but that does not mean that their life cannot be full of spirituality, symbolism, and service to God and others through prayer and activities.
We had a discussion about the symbolism of 40 days in Lent. My daughter remembered that it was based on Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert and being tempted by the devil before beginning his ministry of serving the people. We also read this site discussing the evolution of Lenten practices in the church and other symbolic reasons for having 40 days. My intent was to help them understand that through symbolism we are renewing our baptismal promises by consciously using these six weeks to reflect, pray, and help others. In today’s world we often get too busy and Lent is a time to slow down and reflect on how we can be better servants to this world .
The 3 Pillars of Lent:
The Catholic Children’s Bible from St. Mary’s Press is the best children’s bible in the world! Before purchasing the bible for my son’s First Communion we had bibles that were either “babyish” or adult but nothing in between. This bible is perfect for elementary students and it is what we are using for readings and activities during Lent. It is a complete bible with colorful illustrations , writing prompts, prayers, and activity ideas. My middle schooler even loves this bible! I love this bible because it brings the biblical stories to life! Within the books of the bible are 125 story spreads complete with vivid pictures, an “understand section” (symbolism or in-depth explanation of the bible story), a “live it section” (art or writing activity) and a “tell it section” (possible writing prompt). In addition there are apps and webinars that go along with the bible —check it out here. In the back of the bible is a timeline, maps of Old and New Testament, and Catholic prayers. We are excited to consciously pull this book out and use it on a daily basis during Lent.
The idea is to give five minutes each day to prayer or devotion in some way. Other days may be longer when we are doing an activity but five minutes to pause each day for reflection is our goal. This idea was inspired from a post by Catholic Icing–-5 Minutes for Him-–I just love the thought behind this program and I have adapted the idea to what we already own.
According to the Church guidelines, my children are not obligated to fast on the required days until they are 14. However, we talked about ways they could “fast” to symbolize Jesus’ 40 day fast and we came up with the idea that they could eat three full meals a day but avoid snacking between meals on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the other Fridays of Lent. Ultimately, it is their choice to do this version of “fasting” but if they choose not to they are still “fasting” through what they have chosen to give up for the Lenten season.
Why do Catholics not eat meat on Fridays ? This is the burning question in the minds of my children. I reminded them that abstaining from “flesh meat” symbolizes that Jesus gave his flesh for us on Good Friday. We our honoring him by abstaining from meat. Also, back then flesh meat (mammals and poultry) was very expensive and associated with feasting. Lent is a solemn time to live simply and not lavishly. Catholic Relief Services has a great section on simple meal recipes from around the world. We plan to try some of these on Fridays during Lent—check it out here.
Almsgiving is the act of giving to those in need. We discussed what it means “to give” because it does not always mean money. There are many ways children can give through volunteering, donating, and making things. Donating time is just as valuable as donating money. We came up with ways we would like to help others during Lent, which are personal and meaningful to us. One example is we are donating supplies to a local pet rescue that recently caught on fire.
Almsgiving often goes hand in hand with “giving something up”. Even if you are not Catholic you have probably heard of some one giving something up. If it is an item such as caffeine, chocolate or cigarettes then the idea is that the money that would be spent on those items would go into a jar over 40 days. At Easter time this money collected could be donated to your favorite organization or to the church. My kids thought long and hard about what they wanted to give up for Lent. My son gave up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups again. Believe me this is very difficult for him and I was surprised he was doing it again this year. My daughter gave up her hair—meaning she had over six inches cut off her head. This may not seem like a huge deal to some people but to a girl who loves her hair this was a big deal. I found myself asking her at least ten times “are you sure?” But then I stopped and reminded myself that this was her symbol, her Lenten journey. When they had asked what they should give up I answered that it had to be their personal choice. What I value is not necessarily what they value and if I choose then it loses personal meaning.
My contemplation on what to give up was just as difficult. It is totally age appropriate for them to give up something and get in back in the future. A 9 year old dreaming about taking a bite of chocolate and peanut butter on Easter Sunday is similar to Jesus dreaming about a good meal in the desert. However, as an adult I was searching for something meaningful and permanent to me. Last year I gave up gluten and processed food and replaced with all whole foods. My diet still consists of whole foods about 90 percent of the time. This lead me to more energy and improved concentration to focus on serving my family and others. This year I decided to use my New Year’s resolution that never got off the ground. I decided to give up negative thoughts and worrying about the future. Instead I am replacing the negative with mindfulness exercises, a gratitude journal, and devotionals. This is easier said than done. In the past I have lasted about a week keeping a journal consistently. My hope is that as I stay mindful (present) and practice gratitude I will relieve worry about what is beyond my control and trust more in God’s plan for me.
I love the season of Lent because we slow down and make time for reflection in order to deepen our personal relationship with God. It is heartwarming to see my children evolve in their choices for fasting , helping others, and asking questions to learn more about our symbolic practices. A spiritual relationship is complex and is not always easy to maintain due to the busy world we live in. Their journey deepens every year and I love playing an integral role in their walk on the spiritual road. My goal is for them to see spirituality as a beautiful life-long pilgrimage , not a spoon fed religion that they rebel against because they see it as an obligation rather than a choice.