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Lent: A Time of Contemplation for All

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 20, 2014

Many years ago while I was discerning my life's vocation, I was drawn to the contemplative life, particularly the Poor Clares. So when the nearby Poor Clare convent had a "Come and See" weekend during Lent, I jumped at the opportunity. The invitation said I was to come on Saturday for a few hours. When I arrived, I went to a room and found written instructions. I was to polish two large altar candlesticks. All my supplies were laid out: polish, a few non-absorbent cloth rags, and a roll of rough brown paper towels.

I never saw or talked to a soul the entire time. As I was not familiar with the grounds, I didn't even get to see the chapel. The whole time I did the work I was frustrated on how I couldn't get the job properly done with the materials and shortness of time. I had romantic notions of seeing the sisters in their habit and perhaps working with them in person for a bit. Sitting in an enclosed room polishing was not what I thought getting a taste of the Poor Clares would be. That afternoon obviously clarified that it was not my vocation, but this passing moment which was a closing of one door at the time has since been a real light bulb moment for me.

It was not until many years later (to my embarrassment) during my training as a catechist for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) that I realized what a gift I was given that "Come and See" Saturday. In those few hours I did truly get a taste of contemplative life. I was given a chance to do quiet work, leaving opportunity for prayer and conversation with God -- ora et labora. The assignment was not about getting the job done, although I certainly needed to be conscientious, but it was an opportunity for work in a spirit of prayer, and not just any work, but work of a sacristan. And the point was not the finished product, but the process.

I recognized the similar opportunities given to children in the (CGS) atrium in all levels and ages. In the midst of learning the greatest truths of the Faith, the children are given opportunity to work within the atrium. The work can include cleaning, polishing, flower arranging, and calligraphy. This is time for absorbing these great truths and for quiet prayer -- in other words, contemplation. And I also realized the opportunity of contemplation is not limited to the monastery or atrium, but it is something we should all strive to have in our lives. It is harder to find in our busy lives, but an important necessity.

As we get closer to Lent, it is this small lesson that keeps returning to my mind as I plan for our family's Lenten journey. How can we incorporate contemplation in our family during Lent? This is a gift of time for spiritual rejuvenation. Lent is our annual retreat while living the world. How can we embrace this opportunity?

Advent was the last penitential season we celebrated, building up to Christmas. Advent was preparation for Christ's two-fold coming. It includes personal preparation, but it is a more joyful and public spirit, just as one prepares for a gift of a new birth. But often I see in families a desire to recreate the Advent spirit and type of activities for Lent, but Lent is very different. To reach Easter, we have to enter into the desert with Christ. We must walk Calvary and carry the Cross with Christ before we can witness and celebrate His resurrection. The Lenten journey is more individual and personal in spirit. It is not a completely sorrowful time, but it does hold a different mood than Advent. It is a time, like Father Faber says, to "come and mourn with me awhile."

I'm not sure the original source, but I have heard repeatedly that Lent is not just about "giving up". Removing habits or activities or objects from our life leaves a void, and an opportunity for something worse to arise in its place. Instead the advice is for everything removed, there needs to be a positive replacement. So while our family is removing the extra "noise" in our life for Lent -- TV, computer, music, outside activities, dessert, eating out, etc, -- there is a need to fill the void with something positive. But I'm not looking for another "noise" but something that allows us to hear that "still small voice" in our heart.

This is where I'm reminded about my little afternoon at the Poor Clare convent. I will be adding external reminders and family prayers and activities related to Lent, but I'm also going to give some time and activities that allow contemplation. I won't be looking for the Grand Silence of the convent, but just little ways that we can all work quietly which allows our thoughts to turn to God and prayer.

I'm choosing activities appropriate for my family. We have two boys ages 10 and 6. One activity that we all enjoy, from the parents to the children, is writing pysanky (Ukraininan eggs). It is not my heritage, but this was an art I took up many years ago, and has become a family activity. Close to Lent we take out the dyes and kistky, gather the candles and matches and beeswax, cover the table with paper, and start writing. We try to leave out the workspace set so we can work an hour here and there. Since the TV is off at night, my husband and I enjoy working together under the glow of the candle flame.

These are not professionally done, and the younger the child the more it is about the process more than the product. (The individual egg pictured was done by my then 9 year old for his atrium catechist.) There is experimentation with the beeswax and flame (yes, open flame, so this is a supervised activity), and early eggs have a lot of "blobs". But we have continued and expanded this tradition for 3 years. Already my husband and sons are clamoring to begin. And I mention this particular activity because it takes concentration and silence....time for contemplation during this work.

Another activity we will do again this year is writing in calligraphy, particularly prayer cards. This is an inspiration from the CGS atrium, where different Biblical verses are copied, often in calligraphy and used for the prayer table. I've been writing in calligraphy for many years, and I have enjoyed seeing my sons learning and practicing. We enter into our own "Scriptorium" in our domestic monastery, copying the Word of God on paper and on our hearts.

I'm not planning all our activities to be so sophisticated. We have plans to continue working with Sculpey clay and Perler beads, as this is also a quiet work. And coloring and painting is an obvious choice, and much loved by my younger son. We also will include some needlework, which we have done a little in the past, and the boys are eager to continue.

This is not our full plan of Lenten activities, but it is my priority to apply the long-to-learn lesson from my discerning days that it is important for everyone to have that balance of being Mary, contemplating Christ, during our work with Martha's hands. While we should always pray while we work in our daily lives, it is important to provide opportunities of quiet work that leaves more room for contemplation within our own home, our domestic monastery.

Next week I will share other ways we observe Lent in our home.

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