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Lenten Mnemonics: Keeping our Focus in Lent

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 28, 2014

It is a late start this year, but Lent will finally begin on March 5. It is less than one week away. I have feelings of both dread and anticipation for this season: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

My first thoughts when I think of this liturgical season:

L = Less
E = Eats
N = No
T = Treats

Of course that is just a shallow and whining view of Lent, and a reflection of my weakness. Lent is not just about "giving up" something, but that is the common phrase used among Catholics, "What are you giving up for Lent?" It's similar to the question posed to every child before Christmas, "What do you want Santa Claus to bring?" That question doesn't reflect the true meaning of Christmas just as much as "giving up" doesn't capture the heart of Lent.

But how to unpack the true meaning of Lent? We have all the guidelines we need in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday:

  • "Rend your hearts, not your garments" -- Book of Joel.
  • "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me" -- Psalm 51.
  • "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" -- 2 Corinthians 5.
  • "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret....
    [W]hen you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret....
    [W]hen you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting except to your Father who is hidden" -- Matthew 6.

And then we are signed with the ashes: "Repent and believe in the Gospel."

Lent is turning away from sin, practicing almsgiving, prayer and fasting in secret. And these are not just external acts, but reflected as changes in the heart. And this needs to be done now, no procrastination. There is no other acceptable time then the present moment. To get to Easter we must carry our cross with Christ, enter into death with Christ, to rise again with Him.

All very easy to type, but not so easy to practice. And how to put this in a practical way for the family, especially for my children? As a mother, Lenten planning is not just about me. I have to consider:

  1. my personal plan
  2. areas together with my husband
  3. my children's plans, to help guide them
  4. our plan as a family

Our family has been talking and planning together for a few weeks on how we are going to spend this season. For years I have used the Personal Program for Lent as a simple guideline. What areas do we need to make changes? What ways are we going to practice self-denial? What tweaks or changes or additions to our prayer life? What will be our main penance that we will work on during Lent?

Once we settle on a basic program for our family, I focus on ways to remember to stick to the plan. What can remind us about our Lenten resolutions? How to keep the momentum through the 40 days? I have a few ways that we will keep these in our memory. I titled this "Mnemonics" not in the strict sense of learning devices, but in different ways that one can remember to keep a focus during Lent.

Using our APPS

First, our family will implement our special Apps for Lent:

A = Almsgiving and Good Works
P = Prayer and Spiritual Reading
P = Penance
S = Sacrifices and self-denial

There is an extra category, or "P" besides the "Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving" the three tenets of Lent that Jesus gave, and that is "Penance". This category is the one big area we choose to work on daily throughout Lent.

Keeping track of our Apps we use the low-tech PBOS--Poster-Board Operating System. Growing up my family had a Lenten Family Chart every year which had these 4 categories (or APPS) for each family member, and a square for every day of Lent. Before bed, we would fill with stars the areas we had accomplished that day. My mother didn't award the stars. We examined our day and applied the stars as visual reminders of reaching our goals.

As a general rule, I don't give incentives for accomplishments, particularly spiritual activities. I don't want to be the outside force, but I want my children to respond to grace and have their own internal motivation. This chart is a mere visual reminder, not an award chart. They are filling their crown in heaven.

It is easier to have one chart to hang, but perhaps a small individual chart or folder could be made that is kept in the child's room. For younger children, the public chart works better for us, but as they get older, they will want to do things more individually and privately.

It's getting trickier to find star stickers, especially purple ones, so blue becomes the substitute color. There is an influx of stickers these days, but the simple shiny metallic stars still attract small children. And for the chart, teacher stores usually have a ready-made poster board to make charting a bit easier.

Engaging the Senses

Because we are both body and soul, we can use our senses to remind us of spiritual realities. Putting in mind our senses: See, Hear, Taste, Smell and Touch can be touchstones for remembering our Lenten resolutions.

To See:

  • Violet or purple is the liturgical color of the season. Besides seeing the changes at Mass with the priest's vestments and altar cloths, I also add touches of purple around the house. The dining room table bears a purple cloth and table runner. There are napkins and kitchen towels used with the liturgical color. Nearing Holy Week the decorations will change to focus on the events of the Passion and Resurrection.
  • We also have a centerpiece for Lent, a Crown of Thorns. We have made the Salt Dough Crown of Thorns, but then switched to a Grapevine Wreath because of my son's wheat allergies (he has a reaction when flour is in the air). 
  • I mentioned in my Candlemas post that we try to incorporate candles, and Lent is no exception. We light purple votives with our dinner prayers.
  • Our mantle bears a NOW Cross, and our table holds a small handmade tile to remind us that "Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!" (2 Cor. 6:2).
  • I call myself the Flip Chart Queen because I incorporate a flip chart easel with religious art and prayers at our table for almost all the Liturgical Seasons. For Lent the Stations of the Cross easel will be used.
  • Reading incorporates several of the senses, but first sense is to see. We have our family Lenten reading plan, which includes pictures books on different themes for Lent and feast days, and a few chapter books for my older son.

To Hear:

  • During Lent we try to reduce the amount of unnecessary noise to be able to hear the still, small voice within us. There will be less TV and music. Our ears will hear more silence.
  • This season's liturgical music is usually serene and quiet. We will be learning a few short chants to sing, and play various Lenten cds, including the beautiful new Lent at Ephesus cd by the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles.
  • We will also be hearing the Liturgy of Lent. Our plan is to attend the Lenten noon Mass a few days a week. And those days we do not, we listen to the podcast of the readings from the USCCB.
  • I also like to play the Divine Office App or Podcast at breakfast. Even if my sons aren't actively listening, they are absorbing some of the beauty of Morning Prayer. (The App is currently on sale, 25% off, until Ash Wednesday.)

To Taste:

  • This is a sense we generally mortify during Lent ("Less Eats No Treats"), so it is less tantalized with earthly foods, but adding weekday Masses can provide our tongues with the sweetnes of the Bread from Heaven.
  • We will observe the meatless Fridays, even for the children, but also add one extra night of abstinence.
  • Our prayers are another area for the sense of smell: "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Psalm 119:103). We have been adjusting some of our daily family prayers. The boys are learning the official version of the Morning Offering (they have been saying a simpler version). I mentioned already that we will add the Stations of the Cross, and Sundays we will be praying the Sorrowful Mysteries when we pray the Rosary. At night we have begun praying the Canticle of Simeon, and hope to learn a Marian antiphon or chant to sing together.
  • "Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 114:3). What comes out of our mouths is another area of focus. We need to ask for the grace to speak in charity, in kindness and cheerfulness, and not allow cross or harsh words cross over our lips.

To Smell:

  • This sense usually overlaps with other senses, so it's difficult to pinpoint particular active ways of incorporating this sense. But this is one of the senses that is attached to memory. One scent can bring a flood of memories. In Lent there will be the scents of the Liturgy -- incense, candles. There will also be the odors from the different Lenten meals.
  • There will also be the smell of cleanliness. Lent is the traditional time of spring cleaning. Since I'm recovering from open heart surgery I won't be doing major cleaning, but I do hope to tackle some rooms to air out the house.
  • And the final scent will be the emerging spring! Easter is really late, so Lent will have more springtime weather. The scents of the new blossoms and freshly tilled dirt are reminders of or the resurrection. With Christ we will leave behind sin and death!

To Touch:

  • Last week I wrote about work of our hands, crafts or work that require slowing down, incorporating touch but allowing contemplation. Besides the quiet projects I mentioned, there are also the harder labor, like gardening and spring cleaning. That work by the sweat of our brow reminds us of our ashes, "Remember man, you were dust and dust you shall return" and our Lenten resolutions.

Sometimes it's just hard to remember to keep the spirit of Lent. This is by no means exhaustive, but these are the small ways our family will commit Lent to our memory.

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