I can tell Lent is coming.
I’ve heard the stories of Zacchaeus, and the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son. I’ve been warned about the sheep and the goats. I’ve done some serious menu planning, to make sure we use up the foods that we aren’t going to eat during Lent.
And I’ve started seeing Facebook posts that explain that you must get yourself and your children to Church for all of the Lenten services. If it’s a struggle, well, Lent is a struggle. If you don’t bring your children to all, or at least most, of the services, you are a failure as an Orthodox Christian parent. You are failing your faith and failing your children. They will never believe that you truly love God or the Church. They will grow up to think that the Church doesn’t really matter.
Let me be frank: That’s not true.
If you or your children are disabled, you probably shouldn’t attempt to attend all the Lenten services. In fact, even if nobody in your house is disabled, you still may not be able to attend all the Lenten services.
Children (and adults) with certain medical conditions need to eat and sleep on a regular schedule. Some simply don’t have the stamina to manage extra services in the evenings. Some can’t cope with crowds of people, loud noises, or changes in their routine.
If attending additional services is going to lead to anxiety, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, and meltdowns in your household, if the end result is parents yelling and children crying (or the other way around), attending Lenten services won’t help you prepare spiritually for Pascha.
Don’t do it.
Here’s what you can do instead.
How to keep Lent when you can’t attend services
Our Lenten discipline requires us to increase our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. You can do those things without attending extra services.
Increase your prayers
If you don’t go to Lenten services, you can still pray more during Lent.
Whatever your family prayer rule is, add the Prayer of St. Ephraim to your prayer times (including a prostration after each petition, if you are able).
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, love of power, and idle talk.
But give to me, your servant, a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.
That alone might be enough of a change, and enough of an addition, for your family.
But if your family can do more, you might add a portion of the Akathist to the Mother of God to your evening prayers. You might add brief morning prayers, if that’s not something you already do. You could add the daily scripture readings to your prayer time.
But don’t try to do everything. It’s more effective to add something small, and sustain it over all of Lent, than it is to add a lot, and find that it’s more than your family can do.
Find a way to fast
Many families with special needs keep what amounts to a perpetual fast. It’s not the standard Orthodox monastic fast, but it can be quite severe.
If someone in your household has celiac, or severe food allergies, or food-triggered migraine, or other disability that affects what you can eat, taking more foods out of your diet may not be reasonable or even possible.
It may be that eating according to your medical needs, without exceptions or “cheat days” is enough of a fast.
Maybe, for your family, it would work to give up red meat, or to have meatless meals three days a week.
Or perhaps you can simplify your menus. You don’t have to have something different for every meal. Plan ordinary, simple, even boring meals. When you cook, make enough for two or three meals. Leftovers make great Lenten meals.
Figure out what’s going to work for your family. If you can, share your plan with your priest, and get his advice. But if someone in your household is already on a severely restricted diet, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to restrict it even more.
Involve your children in almsgiving
Set an amount that your family will give during Lent. And then have your children help you decide where and how to give it.
What that looks like will depend on your children’s ages and interests, and what the opportunities for giving are where you live.
If you pass homeless people on the streets or at freeway ramps, young children can help assemble blessing bags.
Older children or teens may want to select charitable organizations to receive your family’s gift. Depending on their age, you could present them with a list to choose from. The kids can research what the organizations do, and how your family’s donation will help.
Great choices include International Orthodox Christian Charities, FOCUS North America, Feeding America, and your local food banks. You can also consider charities that deal with specific illnesses or issues that have affected your family.
Keeping Lent by doing less
If you’re not going to the Lenten services, because it’s just too much, there are probably other activities you’d benefit from not doing. Your kids can’t give up school, and you can’t give up work. You can’t give up therapy appointments and IEP meetings. But you can let the small stuff go.
What counts as the small stuff? That depends on your family, on your family’s needs and your family’s values.
But, seriously, get out your calendar. Make sure everything is on it: church, chores, errands, work, school, and special events. And then see what you can cut. Maybe Saturday morning story hour at the library is non-negotiable for your family. Or maybe it would work, on Saturday mornings, to read the lives of the saints at home. Maybe you decide that dishes have to be washed and laundry has to be done, but other chores can be done less often, or not at all, during Lent.
You might expect your kids to protest as you cut activities. Kids often protest changes of any kind. And many of them suffer from a fear of missing out. But 41% of kids say that they are stressed from having too many activities. So reduce the stress in your family. Find a way to do less during Lent.
Abstain from screens
That sounds like a sure-fire way to make your family miserable, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re cutting back on other activities – what will everyone DO, if they’re not watching videos, playing online games, or surfing the Web?
Your instinct is right, if you simply give up screen time, and don’t replace it with something better. Fortunately, there’s something better you can try:
Talk to your children about Paradise. God created Paradise for Adam and Eve. They had everything they needed, and everything they wanted. Lent is, in a small way, a struggle to return to Paradise, and to make ourselves ready for the Kingdom that is to come. That’s one of the reasons we don’t eat meat during Lent, because Adam and Eve didn’t eat meat.
And as we fast from foods, we can find other small ways to adjust our lives so it’s more like Paradise. Adam and Eve didn’t use electricity in Paradise, so we can reduce the amount that we use.
In the evenings, after dinner, turn off all the lights in the house. Turn off your devices. Put your phones in a drawer. Light candles. Have a family read-aloud, or have everyone bring their books to the living room to read together silently by candlelight. (For the younger kids, have a stack of picture books about saints and picture books about Pascha.)
If your children can’t manage the stretch from dinner to bedtime with just reading, play a boardgame as a family. (There are some wonderful cooperative games which suit the spirit of Lent better than competitive games.)
If you can’t do this every night, do this one or two nights a week. You may find that your children don’t want to give it up after Lent.
Maybe you can try some of the services
If you’re not sure whether your child, or you, or your family can manage attending Lenten services, there’s no harm trying. But be realistic. It might not go according to plan.
- Choose services on days when there’s not much else going on, and at times that don’t affect your child’s sleep schedule.
- Rehearse the services and expectations with your child in advance. Consider making a visual schedule for the service, so your child will always know what comes next.
- Be prepared to make an early exit. Let your child know that they can tell you when they can’t take any more, and leave when they ask you to.
- If some of your children want to attend more services than the whole family can manage, arrange for them to attend with a godparent or friend.
- If you want to attend more services than your children can manage, consider whether you can hire a reliable sitter to stay with your children while you go to church. Or perhaps you and your spouse can take turns attending services.
It’s easy to feel pressured or shamed into attempting more than you can do, and then crashing. You don’t have to do that. You can create a blessed and holy Lent that works for your family. Then, instead of facing the Fast with dread, you can truly receive with joy the divinely-inspired announcements of Lent.
Welcoming everyone to church: Disability and special needs: How to welcome people with disabilities to church, with dignity and respect.
Of Such is the Kingdom by Summer Kinard: A review of Summer Kinard’s practical and patristic book about disability in the Church.
The Giant Cookie Test: If you’re not sure whether your child can’t meet your expectations, or whether they simply won’t, the Giant Cookie Test will make it clear.