A Sense of Lent
used with permission
"Shhh," my grandmother laid her finger to her lips, "people are praying." We entered her church and fell silent. Pulling on the big heavy oak door, I breathed in the musky smell of old wood and burning candles. I followed the click of my grandmother's heels leading me to the front of the sanctuary. Sliding onto the smooth pew worn by years of worshippers, the beauty of the sanctuary impressed me. Gorgeous stained glass windows portrayed biblical scenes and intricate saintly statues surrounded the altar giving me a sense of connection to the past. Choir music drifted down from the loft behind us and filled the space with a sweet sense of God's presence. I loved attending holy mass with my grandmother. I felt close to heaven.
That extremely sensorial experience from my childhood has stayed with me and helped to form my faith even into adulthood. As human beings, even as very young children, we gather information and form impressions in our soul based on sensory stimulus. In today's society, our senses are bombarded each moment of the day from all areas of life. How can we provide our children with meaningful experiences to build their faith upon? We can take a lead from the Mass and fill our homes with a religious atmosphere which permeates the senses.
The church calls for the family to be a domestic church. We must establish sensory experiences of the liturgical seasons in our homes to support this domestic church. Our family has found that the season of Lent preparing us for Easter is filled with opportunities to fill our home and family time with sensorial customs to etch the faith into our children's memories and educate their hearts.
Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we feel the spirit of sacrifice as we participate in fasting and abstaining with many other Catholics. Before attending mass, we meet and record what we plan to "give up" for Lent. Generating a sacrifice that is meaningful to all of us is easy. Every member of this family enjoys ice cream and chocolate to an obsession, so denying ourselves sweets for forty days feels like a true sacrifice and is chosen often.
We encourage the older children to join us in personal sacrifice. We each discern a personal behavior or activity that prevents our being close to God. Recording those sacrifices as well, everyone signs the paper and we place it in the prayer corner of our home. Anticipation fills us as we realize that Easter is coming and we begin to prepare our hearts through sacrifice.
Younger children struggle to grasp sacrificing for such a lengthy time, so we watch for opportunities to encourage their sacrifices daily. For them, something as simple as letting another sibling go first is a sacrifice. We write it on a slip of paper and offer it to Jesus by placing it in a container in our prayer corner. Sacrifice is deeply felt in our home during Lent.
Just as we physically transform our home during Christmas, we can see the Lenten season reflected there also. We see a large felt banner hanging in our dining room with a bare vine and the scriptural words "I am the vine, you are the branches." The children add a felt grape or leaf to the vine each day to help them count the many days of Lent. We compare our budding vine indoors with the budding branches of the trees outdoors as winter gives way to spring. We also drape our prayer corner with purple, just like on the altar at mass, to remind us of the sacrificial and penitential nature of lent.
Our children also see the Stations of the Cross added to our prayer corner during Lent. Pictures of each station have a small candle under each. On Friday nights, we gather, light all the candles and say the Stations of the Cross. As each station is read, one of the children will snuff out the candle under that picture. When the last candle is snuffed, we pause and reflect on the day that the "light of the world" died. The little ones can both feel and see the concept of Jesus' death on the cross.
Lent even sounds different from Easter. Lenten prayers resound with sorrow and penance while the prayers we say during Easter reflect joy and jubilation. We strive to have more silence in our home during Lent. To meet the challenge of keeping our large family silent, we restrict radio and TV time and try to model a softer "inside" voice.
The taste of Lent is experienced through a contrast with Easter. Our denial of sweets during Lent means that all the desserts we have during Easter taste heavenly! Experiencing meatless meals and fasting during Lent also directly contrasts to the feast of all feasts on Easter Sunday.
When asked about how Lent smells, my children all said, "Fish!" We do not often eat fish throughout the year, but for some reason - probably my own childhood experience - we always serve more fish during Lent. Another smell that we associate with Lent is the burning of the candles during the Stations of the Cross. And the contrast of the absence of flowers in our prayer corner provides another sensory experience when bouquets are found there and throughout the house for Easter.
Impressing the senses through customs in our home, we educate our children in a more powerful way than just telling them about the liturgical seasons and their meaning. Our six year old daughter has recently put into practice her new understanding of sacrifice. She awoke in the middle of one night and cleaned her room and that of her brothers. The next morning, the joy that she radiated touched our hearts. As we experience a rich, life-giving religious atmosphere in our home for each season of the church year, every member of our family learns more about themselves, each other and God.