Preparing for Lent
Kh. Krista West · March 13, 2009
How to take your schedule down a notch in preparation for Great Lent.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. My parish’s Evangelism Committee publishes a quarterly newsletter and in its most recent issue, my husband and I were asked to write articles on preparing for Lent. My husband wrote the beautiful, spiritually-minded article and I wrote the article on how to get the kids to church on time with matching shoes. Well, I guess we all have different gifts, so I thought I would share my tips for preparing for Lent with you today.
Lent can be a big time commitment—there are three to five extra services each week, not to mention the daily services during Holy Week. It’s a daunting challenge, especially for families and individuals with already-busy schedules. But, Lent only comes once a year and we want to make the most of it so we can experience its positive effect on our lives throughout the rest of the year. In this spirit, it is helpful to prepare for Lent by taking the rest of our lives down a notch so that we can take our church attendance and prayer life up a notch.
Start by looking over your and your family’s schedule and eliminate things that are not absolutely necessary. This is the biggie—you just cannot have your kids in every sport or special activity AND experience Lent in a meaningful way as a family. This can sound a little harsh, but a great part of Lent is putting the rest of our lives on the back burner, so that we can really concentrate on our spiritual lives. And in the big picture, Lent is only six weeks. A few weeks before Lent begins, I look over all of our schedules and make any necessary changes. We take a break from swim team and I don’t sign up to teach any knitting classes. We discuss ahead of time any events that might put extra pressure or stress on our family and set our schedules accordingly. We also agree on our family day off each week as this is vital to the life of any family, but especially a clergy family during Lent. Just as we need a little break when we’re out hiking a five-mile trail, so our family needs a weekly little break to have some down-time together and get recharged for the week ahead. If you can’t take an entire day off together during the week, then chose a morning or an evening—just some time that is “sacred” to your family and everyone will be home.
Set a goal of which services you want to attend—this is really important for families. For those with young children, you may want to simply add the Akathist service on Friday nights since it’s the shortest in length. For those with school-age children, I recommend adding the Wednesday night Pre-Sanctified Liturgy since it has a much different tone and feel than a Sunday Divine Liturgy and it presents to children that not every Liturgy has the same feel—an important concept.
No matter which services you decide to partake of during Lent, this is also the time to schedule for Holy Week. This year it is Sunday, April 12th through Pascha on Sunday, April 19th. Holy Thursday is the most important day of the year for Orthodox Christians to receive Communion, so children will want to plan to miss school for the morning. At our parish, we have this Liturgy early and then we have a Lenten pancake breakfast so everyone can eat before they head off to school or work. Adults may want to think ahead and put in for time off on Great and Holy Friday.
Well, I’m not always the best example of getting to church on time, but there are some things that work well. Getting kids dressed and out the door seems to be a big challenge for many of us and I’ve found that keeping some clothes and one pair of shoes as “church only” helps. Also, while I do think it’s important that children learn to dress up for church, sometimes the rules need to be relaxed a little during the more frequent services of Lent. If your children are coming from school, they may need to attend services in jeans or more casual clothes. While our attire should glorify God, it should not keep us from His house. And I strongly recommend keeping one CD of liturgical chant music in the car—this will soothe even the most harried trip to church and ensure that everyone arrives in a prayerful frame of mind.
Speaking of arriving on time, Lent is a good time to remind everyone that Communion should never be partaken of without proper preparation. The “gold standard” of preparation in the Orthodox Church is to attend Great Vespers on Saturday evening, read the Pre-Communion Prayers on Saturday night or Sunday morning, and then attend Orthos and Liturgy. Now, I recognize that this preparation is not feasible for everyone, but we need to give thought and make sure that we preparing in some way. We don’t want to just show up before Communion and receive, because in the eyes of the Church, this is “partaking unto condemnation” and can be very bad for our souls.
So, what are some ways we can prepare? The bare minimum requirement for receiving Communion is that you arrive for Divine Liturgy at the beginning, or at the very least, before the reading of the Holy Gospel. If you arrive after the Gospel, not a problem (after all, we’re always happy to see you!), but do not receive and do not let your children receive. It’s one thing for a child of three to be taken up to Communion after showing up late—after all, they’re completely dependent on their parents. But, if by the age of thirteen, that child is in the habit of taking Communion without proper preparation, he has been taught to receive unto condemnation and it’s a serious thing indeed.
If you’ve got the bare minimum covered and want to move up a “step” in preparation, you can start coming a little earlier for Orthros. This is a particularly beautiful and prayerful service with many of the hymns providing glimpses into the lives of the saints or expounding on our theology. Either in addition to or in place of Orthros, read the Pre-Communion Prayers before coming to church. They’re not long and they are very meaningful prayers. If you’ve got a drive to church, someone can read them in the car (audio CDs are available at some churches). Or, if you can manage it, it makes a nice family tradition to gather around the family icon corner and read the Pre-Communion Prayers together and then ask one another’s forgiveness. Once you’ve got this as part of your preparation, then the final step is to add attendance at Great Vespers. Please keep in mind that these “steps” in preparation are part of our life-long journey as Orthodox Christians. You may be years at one step before being ready to move to the next and that’s OK; the important thing is that you’re moving forward, not backward!
For those of you with young children that are concerned about your children getting bored or noisy if they’re in church for too long: When my girls were toddlers, I, too, was very concerned about this. However, one Sunday I had to be at church at the beginning of Orthros and I noticed that my girls did much better than usual. Church takes a different set of rules for little children (sit still, whisper, etc.) and they need time to transition to the “rules” of church behavior. If you can, I highly recommend coming to church 30 minutes earlier than you normally do (during Lent is a good time to practice this) and spend the first 15 minutes or so walking around the church with your child. Light a candle (or two or three if necessary!), show them the icons, walk around the church, and let them settle in. If a child comes into church prior to Divine Liturgy when the quieter hymns of Orthros are going on, it’s a signal that it’s “church time”. And, the best way to help reinforce positive church behavior is to bring your child every week. Practicing whispering and sitting still gets easier the more you do it.
Lenten services, particularly the weekday services, tend to be more contemplative and quiet in their nature with less chanting to “cover” the noise of busy toddlers or rambunctious preschoolers. Evening services can be especially difficult because children are tired. So don’t worry if your child makes a little noise or needs to wander in the narthex and venerate the icons during a service—it’s OK. Most children respond instinctively to the quieter feel of these services and attending an evening Liturgy can be a wonderful way to end the day as a family. You’ll all be a little more tired than usual, but there is a real peace that comes after a Lenten service.
And for those mothers tailing their busy toddlers in the narthex, concentrate on the beauty of the icons and the chant and don’t worry that you’re not “in” the service—you are just as much a part of the service as you walk with your child as if you were in the front row or singing in the choir.
If your children are school-age, try and provide a small amount of “quiet time”, for reading or quiet play or just unwinding, before you come to church. It will help them transition from their busy day at school to the quietness of church.
For adults, this same idea of a little quiet-time can be just as beneficial. If you can manage to sit for 10 or 15 minutes before coming to church, great; if you’re coming straight from work, then turn off the CD player and drive in silence as a way to prepare yourself. If your day has been crazy and you’ve felt frazzled and traffic was horrible, then once you get to church, step into the narthex, light a candle, and take a deep breath. Let the peace and prayer of the church wash over you. When I’m feeling particularly stressed or harried, I try to walk in the church and think of all the prayers of all the people who have prayed here. It’s an awesome and humbling thought and helps me get my perspective back in place.
Years ago, a nun told me to teach my children to say “Forgive me” instead of “I’m sorry” since forgiveness requires a response from the other person. We begin Lent with the Forgiveness Vespers in which every person present asks everyone else their forgiveness. This is a wonderful way to start Lent as a family and a very powerful tool in teaching our children about our responsibility towards others and our need for God’s merciful forgiveness. During Lent, try to ask each person in your family “Forgive me” before bed or before receiving Communion.
If you have someone for whom it is very hard to extend forgiveness, remember that forgiveness is about you, not them. In our journey to ever-closer union with God, we want to remove any roadblocks and sometimes, these roadblocks can be the hardness of our own hearts towards others. In the Orthodox Church, we do not believe that you “forgive and forget” as if the words erase the deed, but rather we believe that forgiveness of others is a type of release for the sin in our lives—by forgiving someone else, we recognize our own shortcomings and how others might need to forgive us. Forgiveness is a type of re-boot for our souls—turning them back to God.
By this point in Lent, if you’ve decided to partake of the discipline of fasting, then you’re probably getting a little tired of lentils or split pea soup! Fasting is not for the faint of heart, but I think it is a discipline sorely needed in our gluttonous times. To simplify fasting, choose five or six recipes everyone likes fairly well and then make them in rotation each week. Remember—the whole point of fasting is to be thinking less of food, not more, and for moms, especially, this includes the planning aspect of cooking and feeding our families. Learning to do with less is an excellent lesson for our children and one they will take with them into their adult lives. Yes, it’s boring, but think of all the character you’re building! One lovely little custom is to give your children a sweet after every service they attend with the words, “Lent is sweet.” We keep bars of semi-sweet chocolate in the kitchen during Lent for just this purpose.
It’s good to remember that fasting, like all of our lives as Orthodox Christians, is a journey and some years we move a little farther along than other years. Try and fast as you are able—for some, this means just going without meat and for others, it may be the complete fast. For families with small children, I recommend letting the children (as well as nursing and pregnant mothers) eat whatever they need to during the day and then sharing one meat- and dairy-free meal together as a family. This allows everyone in the family to participate in the fast, but in a way that is not detrimental to young children’s health.
A great idea we can borrow from our monastic brothers and sisters is the idea of what at my house we call “monastery lunch”: set out a tray with bowls of fasting finger-foods like nuts, dried fruit, bread, crackers, etc. and let everyone partake as much or as little as they like. This is common practice in monasteries as these kind of foods are left out in the kitchen for anyone who needs a little sustenance. They don’t sit “down” to a meal, but anyone who needs food for fuel can obtain it. This is particularly great for days with Pre-Sancitifed Liturgy in the evening if the parents are trying to fast, but the children need to eat.
Yep, during Holy Week there are services every night, but if you’ve never experienced Holy Week as a family, you should definitely give it a try—it’s like nothing you’ve ever done as a family before. Those with young children might decide to attend nightly from Holy Thursday onwards and those with school-age children should consider attending every evening. Holy Thursday morning is the most important day of the year to receive communion, especially for children, and so you will want to plan in advance for your child to miss school on this morning. During Holy Week, the services build in their intensity, starting with the quieter Bridegroom Matins early in the week and culminating in the Lamentations on Friday Evening which leads directly into the Resurrection Liturgy on Holy Saturday.
Holy Week is designed to be wholly absorbing and we need to allow it to do its job. Everything else gets put on the back burner. In our harried modern life, having a week where we’re focusing on one thing and one thing only is refreshing and restoring. This is not the week for multi-tasking! Attending services during Holy Week feels like a journey and by the time we reach Pascha, our joy is even deeper and richer because we’ve traveled so far together. So, don’t get left behind!
Now, here I have to be honest—it disappoints me every year at my parish to see how poorly our midnight Pascha service is attended by children. I’m not trying to give a guilt trip, but this is THE most important service of the entire year, of the entire church, and, ultimately, of our entire lives and yet I rarely see children at it. Yes, it requires some planning and you may need to tote along a pillow or a blanket, but it is vital that you bring your families to Pascha night. Even if you don’t make a single Lenten service, plan on being there Holy Saturday at 11pm. It’s the unusual child who isn’t raring to go when they figure out they get to stay up really late and walk around church in the dark with a candle. Plus, the festive potluck that many parishes host afterwards is great fun as everyone brings their favorite meat or dairy-laden dishes to break the fast together. The experience of Lent culminating in Pascha also shows our children the beautiful rhythm of fasting and feasting that is part of our lives as Orthodox Christians. Attending the yearly Resurrection service on Holy Saturday creates wonderful memories as a family and shows our children the beauty and glory of our Faith.
These are just a few tips and as you embark upon your own family’s Lenten journey, I know you will grow closer to each other and to our loving and merciful Lord. May He bless you in your efforts and give you all strength and joy in our upcoming Fast. Good Fast!