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Thinking about Lent

I am very happy to say for, I think, the first time in my life, that I am looking forward to Lent this year.  I won’t swear to the fact that it’s the first time I’ve said that, but it’s certainly the first time I can remember thinking it.  Even when I wasn’t a practicing Catholic I sort of dreaded Lent every year.  I would often choose something to give up, fail miserably, and be wracked with guilt for forty days.  This pattern continued unabated post-reversion.  I don’t even remember what I tried to give up most years but it was always a disaster.  I know that failure can be quite valuable.  And, I know that God often wants to show us stuff in the midst of our failures, stuff like Grace and Divine Sufficiency.  But there was still a part of me that didn’t want to continue to choose a penance this year that I had a proven track record of Completely Stinking At.  

Two years ago, for some reason, I came up with the idea of fasting more.  A lot more.  The Church requires Catholics to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday but I think I heard a homily on the topic of fasting (that in itself is a wonder since we hear precious few good homilies) and was duly inspired.  I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation with my husband about my fasting plans but, knowing me, I proposed something like going without food until dinner time every day for the entire forty days.  That’s the way we roll:  I make a completely over-the-top and wildly optimistic suggestion and he tempers it with a combination of knee-jerk pessimism and reason and then we work out an idea that is actually good.  And that is exactly what happened with our fasting plan.  

Somehow we found ourselves wondering what the “old” fasting rules were.  Even my non-Catholic readers are probably aware that many of the externals of the Catholic faith changed post-Vatican II.  It is hard, sometimes, to sort out what was actually practiced by the average Catholic but it used to be that every day of Lent was a Fast Day (and that every Friday all year round was a day of Abstinence, that is, no meat, unlike now where that is only required during Lent).  This much we knew.  So we pulled our our antique Catholic Dictionary and looked up the regulations for fasting.  As it turned out, the regulations weren’t all that strenuous, at least at first glance.  They called for 4oz. of bread at breakfast and 8oz of bread at lunch.  Dinner was normal.  That amount of bread is equivalent to a standard-size French baguette.  And we even had the luxury, that first year, of living twelve steps from an old-fashioned bakery with hot, fresh (and inexpensive!) baguettes available every day.  

So we decided to go for it in way that would gradually ramp up the fasting as the weeks went by.  One fast day the first week (Ash Wednesday), two the next, and so on until we fasted every day of Holy Week.  We also kept up with the general “spirit of abstemiousness” with which the whole family approaches Lent.  Less dessert, less alcohol, more prayer, etc.  And it was great.  I really did it.  I’m not saying it was easy.  I admit, the first few days of noshing on fabulous bread all day long hardly felt like penance but as the days of fasting increased each week I started to get a little tired of bread.  I wasn’t ever exactly hungry fasting this way, but it did infuse my day with a certain sense of deprivation.  It was a constant reminder every time I’d wonder what to make for breakfast (my favorite meal) or when I’d instinctively reach to finish off a snack one of the kids left on the table.  

We repeated the fast last year and, again, it was a really good experience.  Meditating on the success of this particular fast two years in a row my thought was, “What a gift.”  And by that I mean, the Church and all she offers.  The tradition of fasting has been with the Church from the beginning and if I simply take that up and follow it the way the Church says I should, the graces abound.  I used to drive myself to distraction coming up with my own penances and trying to follow them (you have no idea the kind of legalistic mental gyrations I can pull off when chocolate is involved).  Now I just take what is given to me and enter into the penitential simplicity of the season.

So, needless to say, this year, for Lent, I’ll be fasting.  It will look a bit different this year since I don’t really eat bread anymore.  We also now make a point of observing the Ember Days which are a seasonal time of fasting.  I experimented a bit with different ways to fast during the December Ember Days and my plan this year is to fast completely from food from 10-5 for each day that we designate as a Fast Day.  I’ll eat a normal breakfast and dinner.  We’ll also be starting with two fast days the first week and then doing three days a week for the first few weeks.  We’ve found the last two years that three days of fasting is kind of hard and four is significantly harder.  

And, with that, I’m going to try to talk my husband into a “Vigil of Mardi Gras” hot fudge sundae since he won’t be home tomorrow.

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Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. –Voltaire

Pray as you can, not as you can’t. –Abbot John Chapman of Downside

Ninety percent of success is just showing up.  –Woody Allen

The above quotes are the themes of many a motivational speech in our household.  Honestly I hadn’t known the source of the first two until I just now googled them and I briefly thought that the third was original to me.  The three together comprise much of our philosophy regarding prayer time with our children.  We have had days–even weeks–when our Morning and Evening Prayer times are lovely, quiet, and recollected.  The children will at the very least play quietly at our feet and often even chime in on one of the more repetitive parts.  Those times are lovely and we certainly expect more of them as our children grow.

Most of our family prayer time is chaotic–even comical.   Our ideal routine begins when we move from the dinner table to the living room.  We light the candles on our liturgical display shelf, Eric and I each take up our liturgies and sit across from each other.  The three kids choose a book to read quietly or snuggle in next to whichever adult is on the couch.  The actual scenario of late has been considerably different.  Too often I am holding two over-tired, crying children on my lap at the same time while our son is doing fast laps from one end of the house to the other including a dangerous S-curve that once resulted in this.  Eric lights the candles and then reads the Office to me and I do my best to respond and participate from memory.   You might well ask why we bother.

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

Family prayer is a very great good.  While it is true that Eric and I could be more prayerful if we prayed the Liturgy alone, we really want our children involved in the routine of daily prayer.  We’ve been struggling for several weeks with new routines and schedules and our prayer hasn’t been happening as consistently as usual and the kids notice.  They thrive on the routine.  And though it often seems like they can’t possibly be gleaning anything from our much less than perfect attempts, they often surprise us with their insights and memory.  Our kids often ask us about some new word from the psalms and it leads us into an age-appropriate and lovely conversation about faith or theology.

Pray as You Can and Not as You Can’t

Eric and I can pray the Divine Office imperfectly in the midst of chaos (sometimes) or not at all.  Because this form of prayer is a great good to us we choose to pray it the only way we can.  It is important to point out, I think, that this is not the only prayer time we have during the day.  Each of us has various other kinds of private prayer.  I pray a rosary while nursing my baby to sleep.  Eric meditates on scripture during his commute.  If the Liturgy were our one and only opportunity for formal prayer each day we might reconsider sharing it with our children at our own expense–but we might not.  And, as an aside–though this idea merits its own post–I do think that much of life can be done as prayer.  But I also think there is extreme value in entering into a form of prayer in union with the whole Church.

Ninety Percent of Success is Just Showing Up

I developed a good workout habit for the first time in my life this past fall but there were a few days when I felt derailed:  I’d be five minutes into my routine and the baby would wake up an hour early.  I was tempted to be discouraged but I soon realized that just “showing up” for my exercise time was tremendously valuable.  I was much more likely to get back at it the next day if I’d gotten as far as putting on my running shoes and turning on my video.  This applies to prayer as well.  We may have ten days in a row where Eric reads me Evening Prayer over the sounds of our baby fussing.  But the habit is preserved.  It is far more damaging to our habit of prayer when we go two or three days without even making an attempt.  We have found over and over again that just when we think that a difficult situation is going to be permanent, everything changes and we settle into a season when the children are chiming in at the Glory Be and asking thoughtful questions and trying to chant the Magnificat along with us.  Had we thrown in the towel–thinking we know so much about how it’s going to “always be”–we would have missed these times.

If you’ve been thinking about incorporating this devotion–or something similar–into your family prayer life I can offer a few practical tips based on our own experience.  First, do take some time to learn the prayer yourself.  As I said last time, Eric and I had a couple years of praying the Liturgy on our own before we introduced children to the routine.  By then we had it down.  Eric can read most of it to me and I can do the responses easily and sometimes do whole psalms from memory.

Second, peg the prayer time to something you are already doing consistently.  This is abundantly clear in our own life right now:  Evening Prayer happens much more regularly because it falls immediately after dinner which, so far, we have successfully eaten every single night.  Morning Prayer tends to float around to various spots in our routine and we have yet to settle on a peg for it.  As a consequence, Morning Prayer has been much less frequent in our home this year.

Third, bring on the ritual!  Find a special spot for your books, light candles, put up artwork.  We have a very simple acrylic frame that holds an image related to the liturgical season or octave we are celebrating and our candles are liturgically colored.  The kids love seeing these things change.  We’ve been trying to move towards an opening hymn for Evening Prayer and this really helps set the time apart as well.

Fourth, look for the smallest way to include your children.  We began by including our own intercessions along with the standard ones.  Each of us adds our own including the children beginning around age two.  Our kids pray for the same person every single day for months on end.  We recently began asking them to say the Glory Be which closes each psalm.  Next we will probably teach them the Our Father which we chant in Latin.  We plan to reward strong readers with their own books to pray along with us even more.  Start small and work up from there.  In between these moments of participation we ask our children to be quiet and they typically snuggle on the couch with picture books.

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My first contact with the Liturgy of the Hours–or Divine Office–was, well, actually I guess it was my music history class in college.  Medieval music history includes a fair bit of liturgical study.  But I was going to say that my first contact was the annual Goodwill book sale in Washington.  I was an intern at the time and one beautiful fall day the president of my organization was illegally chain smoking in his office and set off the alarms, evacuating our entire building–roughly a quarter-block–onto the street just weeks after 9/11.  My co-workers and I decided to take an early and long lunch break and we headed over to the old Convention Center where tables and tables of books were laid out for browsing.  I’m a bibliophile but I was on a seriously tight budget that semester doing my only unpaid work of college so I resisted temptation throughout the visit.  Just as we were about to leave I spotted a pristine four-volume Liturgy of the Hours for $30.  I hemmed and hawed until my Mormon boss convinced me to buy them.

That weekend I grabbed coffee and the Advent volume to pore over the instructions.  Something in the opening document made me think that lay people shouldn’t pray the Divine Office and I set it aside.  I had only come back to the church a few months before, anyway, and thought I might put my energy into other forms of prayer first.

My beautiful Liturgy set sat, untouched, for about six months.  After college graduation I was spending the summer before graduate school basically getting paid to read.  I was the police dispatcher at a very small, very quiet school.  I had the day shift and not much happened.  I’d read the atrocious Boston newspaper cover-to-cover, do the crossword with the officer on duty, and then read about five hours a day.  My boyfriend (who is now my husband) had seen my Liturgy on my bookshelves and casually mentioned that I might start praying it in all my copious free time.  I did, though it was more out of love for him than any interest on my part.

Later that summer we traveled together for the first time to his homeland (the Midwest) and had the opportunity to pray together every day.  Whenever we could we prayed Morning and Evening Prayer together.  One of my first discoveries was that I’d been on the wrong week all along–did you know that Ordinary Time actually begins after Christmas and then is interrupted for Lent and Easter?  I didn’t, at the time.  I found that praying the Liturgy together was far more interesting and prayerful than praying it alone though I did continue to pray it alone very often over the next year.

After we were married we launched right in to a communal prayer life.  That first year was very idyllic in some ways.  The two of us said Morning and Evening Prayer together every day.  I think we even included Night Prayer and Office of Readings off and on through the year.  We got to Mass together every day, often prayed a Rosary together, and made a Holy Hour together every Sunday.  We still do most of that, in fact–though not always together.  I always felt, though, that I was going to pray the Liturgy kicking and screaming–at least on the inside.  I didn’t really get it.

But over the last six years my appreciation has grown.  We’ve grown more bold about inviting dinner guests and weekend guests to join us in our prayer time.  Truly one of the most extraordinary things about being Catholic is liturgical prayer–these regular forms used by the Universal Church that friends can step in to.  We’ve hosted Sunday Evening Prayer for Evangelical college students when we were dorm parents.  It was a wonderful blessing to introduce young, faithful Christians to a beautiful form of prayer they hadn’t tried before.

And now with three children our prayer time is all the richer for sharing it with our little ones–or sometimes praying it despite them!  Our two older children chime in with their own intercessions at the appropriate moment.  Our musical little daughter tries to sing along when we chant the Magnificat.  Our now five-year-old was an avid signer before he could talk and used to sit on the couch with us listening to the psalms and occasionally signing a word he recognized.  Our littlest right now is such a monkey that I usually station myself on the couch and let him jump and giggle all over and around me while my husband reads the entire office to me from across the room.

Most days we are not as recollected as we would like but during this season of our lives just showing up is an accomplishment.  But somehow, despite all the craziness of our family prayer times, the Liturgy of the Hours has become an important part of our family’s rhythm.  It feels festive to set up seven ribbon markers just to get through Morning Prayer during the Octave of Christmas.  Psalm 63 was always a favorite of mine and now it says, “Feast Day!” to me.  Pulling out my brown volume after Easter seems like a refreshing return to the normalcy and the promise of a long, lovely summer ahead.  Switching to the green book in August reminds me that fall is coming.  Morning and Evening Prayer are the bookends to our family time together.

Next time (no promises about “tomorrow”):  How the heck do you pray liturgically with small children?

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Kids at Mass

It happens almost every morning.  We walk as a family to our beautiful old church for the morning Mass.  My almost five-year old races around back in his wheelchair to use the ramp and Eric accompanies him.  Maragaret (I’m three and everything in my life must be ritualized) insists on entering by the front door and we each have our own section of the front steps to use.  She shows me how strong she is by heaving open the heavy front door and then the door separating the narthex from the church.  We enter the silent, prayerful church and as Margaret sweetly begins her trot up to the very front pew an ear-piercing shriek of delight shatters the silence.  The shriek comes from my baby.

Most days I walk Margaret up to the front pew where she rejoins her father and brother, drop off the back carrier and return to the back of the church where I will quietly pace behind the last pew or, more usually, retreat to the narthex and listen to Mass through the speaker system.  On a really good day I remain in our front pew but by the time I’m heading up for Communion my shirt is covered in drool and spit-up, the collar is stretched out, my sodden scapular is hanging outside my shirt and my little boy’s bald head is covered in lipstick marks.

When this routine began a month or so ago I was tempted to despair.  But I’ve been through this before.  Twice before.  This time is a little different.  For one thing, I’m grateful for the seven or so months when I was able to remain in the pew most of the time.  William’s laid-back temperament has been a blessing.  With Margaret we went almost two straight years without ever sitting through an entire Mass.  On the other hand, the two older kids do better if Dad remains in the pew and Mom takes the baby so this time around it’s always me who is hightailing it out the back.

I also feel confident knowing that the very small, very aged daily Mass crowd at our new parish think our kids are little angels sent from heaven to bless their days.  They are kissed and caressed every day (I’m not kidding) and have lots of prayers and rosaries coming their way.  The two priests at this church are also very supportive of our Mass attendance.  This hasn’t always been the case.  We’ve been glared at by fellow Mass-goers in the past.  My husband (three years ago today, actually, on the day of Margaret’s birth) was threatened with bodily harm if he continued to bring Joseph to Mass.  The pastor there–our pastor–didn’t want to “take sides.”  That same pastor many months later published a bulletin announcement–two weeks in a row–asking parents of small children to please participate in Mass from the (unheated) narthex.  At another church I was once asked to leave the foyer with my noisy daughter and we were once asked from the pulpit, during a homily, to leave Mass.   When we didn’t leave that priest angrily confronted my husband after Mass asking, “Why do you bother coming?”

Why, indeed?  I confess I’ve asked myself that more than once.  During the season when I would typically be the one in back holding my daughter who on one occasion was screaming so loudly that a police officer left Mass to see if I needed medical help and look in at my husband only to see that he had to keep up an almost constant sotto voce chatter with my son to keep him from going berserk with boredom it was very hard to keep at it.  And then I would find that I was too-narrowly defining prayer.  There is some ideal, I suppose, in kneeling at Mass, head bowed, rapt in silence and meditation.  But how much more powerful is the prayer of the mother or father standing as a witness to the culture of life, enduring sometimes outright persecution, straining to create some interior silence in which to embrace the cross–all the while quite literally embracing his or her vocation–hoping for a few crumbs of grace from the table of the Lord.

Fortunately the Lord offers us more than crumbs and Eric and I know that without that regular infusion of grace we would never make it anywhere–never mind daily Mass.  And at Mass, as in all things, it is so hard to gauge when a child has turned the corner.  One day I expect I will realize that I haven’t had to take William out of the church for some time.  And it is hard to believe now that the same girl who blesses herself with holy water, runs up the aisle, genuflects and sits more or less attentively for thirty minutes every day is the same one who subjected us to daily tantrums for months on end.  And that introspective boy sitting in his chair on the aisle?  The one who sometimes acts a bit spastic at the most reverent points of the liturgy?  Who knows what grace is entering his young heart and forming his character.  I expect the Lord will bless Eric and I with many all-too-silent years of prayer.  For now we bring our children in hope.

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Ember Days

I just noted that I haven’t posted much in a couple of weeks. If you are wondering why you need merely follow the link on the post before this one and then re-read this old post. Much as we are both really and truly glad and relieved and all that about the successful defense it is all a bit anti-climactic. The darn thing is just never really done. There were a few minor corrections and then the long, angry session with Microsoft Word during which I gently reminded my husband that he was using a borrowed laptop and was not at liberty to throw it across the room. Then there’s the long meeting with the Provost’s secretary where you get asked questions like, “Did you even read the Dissertation Handbook?” Then there’s the printing of the darn thing on expensive, archival paper. Then there is the final deposit. Then you really are done. Unless your director is really pushing you to publish it as a book this summer. And, of course, he’s still job hunting. And there was no graduation. We went to a graduation party for a good friend last night and learned that there isn’t even a ceremony for summer graduation. You just get a diploma in the mail. Ah, well. We postponed our trip to the Midwest and we’ve both spent the last two weeks looking for job openings, writing application letters and generally driving each other crazy. I think we’re going to return to our old routine tomorrow wherein Eric leaves each morning and goes somewhere else to work and I will return to doing things like running my household and posting on blogs.

We’ve just come off our first ever observation of the Ember Days. The Ember Days are an old liturgical custom that went out in the sixties along with a lot of other stuff when the liturgical calendar was revised. The Ember Days are three days of prayer and fasting at the start of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. The days are actually determined by the liturgical calendar but most years they fall quite close to the actual starts of the seasons. This year was an exception with Easter coming so early. The Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the first Sunday in Lent, Pentecost Sunday, Triumph of the Cross (September 14th), and St. Lucy’s Day (December 13th). The Ember Days are typically seen as ways to sanctify each season, pray for the agricultural events of the coming season, and ordain priests. They aren’t celebrated very widely anymore.

The fasting issue is a bit odd in conjunction with the modern calendar. In our old Catholic dictionary a fast is described as one full meal in the afternoon along with a few ounces of bread at breakfast and 8-10 ounces of food at lunch. Not too rigorous. Only those aged 21-59 were required to fast and even those were exempt in case of illness, the need to do very hard work, pregnancy, etc. But even that sort of a fast is really difficult for me and in the old calendar (according to this same dictionary) every day in Lent was a fast day. Fridays, additionally, were days of abstinence, meaning that no meat could be eaten. In the new calendar the only fast days in the whole year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence from meat is required on Fridays during Lent.

Combining that new practice with the old practice of the Ember Days means, then, that the Ember Days end up being far more rigorous than Lent and I wonder if we’ll find ourselves revisiting our Lenten practices next year. I struggled a lot with fasting this past Lent even though the rules are easy and it was only two days. I haven’t fasted in years because of pregnancy and breastfeeding. The Ember Days were hard, too. I’m glad that the three days are broken up. We observed the one meal and two snacks rule on Wednesday and Friday and used leftover Lenten soup for our one meal so that even that was light and penitential. We broke the fast with Saturday’s Lord’s Day supper which, this week, was a graduation party.

It was a great experience. I do well in voluntary situations. I’m not exactly proud of that but I chafe against the “rule” of fasting during Lent even though I see a lot of benefit in following imposed rules. The voluntary observance of the Ember Days was quite motivating for me. And I did it. I don’t think I even cheated on Wednesday when I gave the kids oatmeal cookies for tea time. I drank my water and read their story and survived until dinner time. It was instructive, too, to see how little food was required when I was mindful about it. I have pretty big blood sugar problems and I tend to either not eat or eat too much simple sugar and then crash. I don’t often feel hungry I just start yelling at people. I’ve “coped” with this over the last couple years by sort of developing an “I have this sickness” mentality and just eating all the time in an effort to maintain balance but all I’ve really maintained is my postpartum weight. On fast days I knew that my quantity of food would be limited so I was more careful about what I ate and I took extra care to not give in to hunger and take it out on the kids during the day. I hope that more frequent times of fasting and prayer can help me with a better attitude towards food.

I’m hoping that we’ll gradually find other traditions to associate with the Ember Days–special prayers, special foods, seasonal activities or crafts. And I’m looking forward to how this will impact our next Lent.

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Our Lord’s Day dinners are going really well. We love the simple liturgy that we devised the first week and we’ve really stuck to it. We’ve often tried to include friends in our Saturday evening meals and we’ve been happy to show them our new tradition. I haven’t always come up with an extra-special meal to serve. Last night was refried beans with fixin’s. I make this sort of meal all the time but something about all those bowls on the table makes things feel festive.

I also recently put my domed cake plate to daily use. We almost always have some baked goods around and I’ve always put them in a ziploc bag on the counter. It doesn’t look very nice and things get crumbled when stored that way. And the mice are happy to chew through the plastic bag if there is anything sweet inside. I brought down the cake plate and I now have a beautiful, mouse-proof way to store our food and preserve its structural integrity all at once.

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One nice thing about Lent being so long is that it’s almost never too late to begin again. I usually find myself needing to do this five or six times over the course of the forty days no matter what I give up. This year I was so hopeful about my schedule plan because it seemed doable. And what good is penance if you can’t do it? I wrote out a rough copy in my notebook and decided to try it out for the first half-week of Lent before typing it neatly and placing it in my planning notebook. I told myself I would follow this schedule to the letter unless my husband or the children needed me or I was too sick to get out of bed.

Ha. Never say unless. I don’t really get sick all that often and the annual cold that comes around sometime late winter is enough to whine about but it certainly doesn’t keep me in bed. My most recent ailment didn’t keep me in bed, either, but it would have if I hadn’t had children. I was sick like this once before and I spent a couple of weeks in bed that time. I won’t give you all the gory details but I will tell you that mold makes me very, very sick. If I’m completely stressed out it exacerbates the effects of the mold. We’ve cleaned up more mold than I care to think about in the last week or so and I’ve been working on reducing stress in my life. I’m feeling well enough to blog, so I figure I’m well enough to give another go at my Lenten schedule. It’s providential, I think, that I chose this particular discipline for Lent because I think the schedule will really aid in my recovery. It’s balanced and generous but covers all the necessary chores and points of responsibility in my life. Just over a month until Easter. Plenty of time to grow in holiness.

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