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Living Lent

Make Lent great for your family with these three keys

By Darcie Nielsen

It's here again: Lent. The season of conversion begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. We are invited to make more room for God in our hearts, our minds and our whole lives. Mother Church gives us the necessary means to make our conversion possible: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

My husband and I are blessed to be part of a family and a parish community because it's the perfect setting to live out Lent. We have one another for support, encouragement and accountability. Let’s look at the three hinges of the season:

Fasting

Fasting empties us, so we can be filled with God. It detaches us from this world. By denying ourselves food, our hearts are turned to heavenly life and matters of the soul.

Since children under 18 aren't required to fast, it doesn't mean they can't be included in the family fast. Cutting down on food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat each Friday are good practices, but consider what St. John Chrysostom said about fasting to help shape your family fast this Lent:

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works … Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from fowl and fishes, but bite and devour one another?

Families can fast from those tendencies of criticism, gossip and greed. Other ways to fast as a family can be giving up snacks, dessert, and eating out. Fasting can also be limiting TV and computer or video games. The family fast should help us focus more on one another instead of ourselves.

Prayer

Since fasting detaches us from this world, we need to be reattached to something. Prayer connects us to heaven. Prayer is our conversation with God; it fills in the emptiness created by fasting. Prayer and fasting go hand in hand!

There's a familiar quote by late Father Patrick Peyton: "The family that prays together, stays together." My husband and I prayed about how our family can pray better together this Lent. This led us to holy sacrifice of the Mass. Since it is the highest form of prayer, we realized we want to be more prepared for Mass. Lately, we've been arriving during the opening hymn and rushing to settle our hearts in prayer. This Lent, we decided to be in our pew 15 minutes before Mass. We hope and pray by God's grace that this is the start of our Sunday tradition and will continue beyond Lent, especially as we have more children!

The Lenten season is an invitation to pray together as a family and there are many ways to do it: a morning offering or blessing together, an evening rosary, or praying part of the Divine Office. Maybe it's reading about the life of a saint each week or reading and reflecting on the Sunday's Gospel. If a child is preparing for a sacrament, you can read about it together in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Lent is a perfect time to have your home blessed or to enthrone an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You also can plan a pilgrimage to a shrine, or pass through the Holy Doors of your cathedral in this Year of Mercy.

By God's grace, let our families be strengthened through prayer this Lent!

Almsgiving

Almsgiving is a result of our fasting and prayer. Through fasting we recognize our emptiness; in prayer, our hearts to God and our neighbors. In these ways, we can better see the needs of our brothers and sisters, and give with a generous heart.

There are many opportunities to give alms as a family in this Year of Mercy. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy provide a path to follow. On Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis will be blessing and sending Missionaries of Mercy throughout the world. In this way, Mother Church is living its mission to “seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). We can help in this mission! Our almsgiving can help invite those who have wandered from the fold. We are included because mercy is a twofold blessing in which the receiver and the giver are both blessed! Let us choose one work of mercy to complete together as a family this Lent.

As the widow in the Gospel put her two coins into the collection, we are reminded that our almsgiving isn't about quantity, but about our intention. How much more meaning does almsgiving have when it comes from our poverty rather than our surplus!

As we embark on this Lenten journey, let us use the keys of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to open our hearts to others, and place God first in our hearts and in our families.

Darcie Nielsen and her husband, Christian, live in Boston with their eighteen-month-old daughter. Darcie blogs at mysoulproclaims.org.