First of all, a caveat: I don’t have any quick and easy answers to this one. Simply reflections on setting realistic standards for ourselves when it comes to religious practice, prayer life, spiritual hopes during a busy season of parenting.
Those of us who want to care for our spiritual side and nurture a relationship with God – but also want to care for our families and nurture a relationship with our children – often find ourselves caught between a rock and hard place. Many spiritual practices seem to require 1) undivided chunks of time; 2) quiet; 3) a peaceful environment. Those almost never occur chez nous, at least not at the same time. So realistic prayer practices and spiritual exercises, no matter how short or how small, are the name of the game in parenting as a person of faith.
1. Lower your expectations.
Sometimes I think I should save my spiritual director the trouble of meeting during Lent, and she could simply send me the notes from the previous year’s session. Because it is always the Same Story. I have all these hopeful expectations and goals – I want to pray this much every day, I want to read this book, I want to give up this bad habit, I want to give more generously to those in need. And then my life intervenes in its usual, busy, frantic ways, and I feel utterly deflated by my inability to make any progress in my goals.
So for the past two years, I’ve deliberately tried to be cautious about my plans and hopes for Lent. Frankly, I set the bar low and I refuse to beat up on myself. Surprisingly, this has resulted in my sticking to Lenten disciplines better than I ever did in the past. Time for prayer – well, that one still eludes me. (More below.) But I try to care for myself like I think God would: gently, lovingly, with forgiveness and understanding. I let myself stumble a lot, and then I celebrate when I pick myself up. The world and its demands are too harsh to be harsh to myself as well.
Lent is a time for growth, for honest self-reflection, for deepening our relationship with God. It’s not a time to feel lousy about ourselves for not doing enough. If Lent calls us to become more like Christ, I think we can start by loving ourselves as Christ loves us, as imperfect, learning, growing humans, I also think it’s important to remember that mothers and fathers give of themselves and sacrifice all year round, so sometimes our living of Lent goes beyond the 40 days.
2. Make short time for small prayer.
Ever since I had S, the aforementioned wise spiritual director keeps reminding me of two things: your work as a mother is prayer and your desire to pray is prayer. The last one took me a long time to accept – it seemed like a cop-out – but I have come to see its truth. So I welcome the desire for prayer when it comes, and I try to carve out space and time to attend to it. But I let go of the expectation that I can pray like a monk in an abbey with the time, space, and place set neatly before him. That’s not my life. Nor is it my call.
Instead, I can pray like a busy working mother.
I can take two minutes to greet the rising dawn with a sun salutation and a whispered word of thanks for another day. I can share a prayer with S when he wakes up and when he goes down to nap. I can bless our food at meals and remember those who will go without today. I can slow down in the day’s whirlwind to give thanks for a healthy child, a warm home, a safe neighborhood, a good job. I can listen to the unexpected ways God speaks: through an email from a friend, through a phone call, through something I read or write. And I can respond with the best of my abilities at that moment.
So my mantra has become “make short time for small prayer.” I don’t have an hour to meditate, but I have hours with many small moments I can fill with a word of blessing, praise, or petition. In this season of my life, that is what I have to give. And I think God, who mothers us all, understands that.
3. Get creative.
Shake up everyday habits in little ways. Change your homepage from email or Face.book or Google to something meaningful – a website with prayer or scripture for daily reflection. Stop yourself before turning on the radio or TV first thing in the morning, and just sit in the silence. Make your cup of coffee or tea at home instead of grabbing a latte while running errands, and donate the extra $3 to someone or some cause that needs it. Even in the busy whirl of work-kids-home-repeat, we can all find one small way to break out of our routine and become more mindful of how we’re living.
Give your “alms” online. What busy mother hasn’t turned to online shopping for diapers, groceries, clothes or other necessities? Do the same with your Lenten giving. This year I made the outrageous claim (see point #1, ahem) that I wanted to give a small amount every day of Lent to some charity or organization that I supported. Of course I quickly realized I had no time to pull this off. But instead, I’ve been making it a point during Lent to make extra gifts to charities we tend to support with our end-of-the-year giving. (The tsunami in Japan provided a huge kick in the rear to get moving on this.) I’ve been able to do this easily and quickly online at night, once S is sleeping and my work is done. It’s been a good Lenten practice to give more this time of year and to keep digging deeper to become more generous.
Multi-task: combine Lenten practices with spring cleaning. I was inspired by the “40 Bags in 40 Days” challenge to rid your home of stuff during the Lenten season. A new baby on the way plus a wet basement from the spring thaw made this plan all the more pressing. But now my first steps towards this goal have made me look at our whole home differently. What haven’t we used in years (if ever)? What could someone else use that we don’t want? I’ve always been haunted by the teachings of the early church fathers that the unworn clothes in our closets belong to the poor. So digging through and giving away has been a wonderful Lenten practice (to say nothing of spring cleaning!).
What works for you? How are you living Lent this year?