A Family’s Spiritual Toolbox
By Jennifer Hock
As we are filled with the radiant light of the Resurrection, we look forward and also look back. By looking back on our Lenten journey, we realize our family has grown in strength and endurance through the struggles we overcame together. As we look forward to the future, we strive to continue using the tools that Lent has given us to grow in spiritual maturity, together as a family, in our continued journey ahead.
Prayer is one of the tools we labored to sharpen during Lent. Regardless of whether your family prays together often or yearns to begin, a little extra attention to prayer time can revitalize any family’s busy life. Prayer is a relationship with God, nurtured and developed first at home within the family. St. John Chrysostom instructs us that, “The primary goal in the education of children is to teach, and to give the example of a virtuous life.” Parents lead through example when children witness their parents gathering everyone for prayer before meals, at bedtime, and for church services. Our children are learning about their faith every day as they participate in the spiritual rituals of the home. Our emphasis on particular activities reveals to our children what we find important—and what we don’t. At times, we need to pause and reevaluate our priorities. Are we incorporating prayer into our daily life? If not, we can make a commitment to say at least one prayer a day with our spouse and children. I find that at meals the entire family can easily say a prayer together because we are already gathered in one spot. If prayer is already part of your daily routine, try to increase it. Include another prayer time in your day, whether during your car ride to and from school or before tucking the kids in bed. Saint Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Our goal then as parents is to try to increase our prayer time as a family each year.
Fasting is another important tool—not just a temporary change in food choices but a means for learning self-discipline. Talk with your children about the importance of fasting. Let them know that if we can learn to refrain from indulging in food cravings when the urge arises then we can also learn to refrain from other behaviors. We can learn restraint when faced with difficult choices that could inhibit our spiritual growth—such as the choices we make at a party with friends or when on a date, or showing good sportsmanship when playing a game. Fasting prepares us for both a strong prayer life and a giving wallet. Without self-discipline, we can easily say we are too tired at the end of the day to pray with our children, telling ourselves we’ll just do it “tomorrow.” Without eating simpler meals, we decrease the money we have available to help those who have little to no food at all on their table. For all our struggles and efforts while fasting, Saint John Chrysostom reassures us in his Paschal homily, “Whoever may be spent from fasting, enjoy now your reward. Whoever has toiled from the first hour, receive today your just settlement.”
As you’re spring cleaning your spiritual toolbox, don’t forget to wipe off any cobwebs you find around your coin purse. Almsgiving as a family is a great way to encourage your children to develop a closer relationship with God. You can make this as creative or as simple an activity as you wish. We are called to help those less fortunate than ourselves by sharing some of our blessings with them. One way you can involve your children is to let them help you choose fasting foods at the grocery store. Explain to them that when you buy fasting foods you try to buy as simply and cheaply as possible so you can give the rest of the money to the poor. Tell them your budget, and let them keep track of how much money is being spent. Allow them to trade out foods to save as much money as possible. (Also let them know they need to eat what they pick out.) When you get home from the store, your children can add the leftover grocery money to a jar in the middle of the kitchen table and later give the money to those in need.
I remember one particular Christmastime when I was a teenager and my family received an anonymous care package of food and gifts because of our financial situation. While I was unpacking the food from the box and putting it in our cupboards, one of the things that stayed with me through the years is that the items donated seemed to be the food people wouldn’t miss from their cupboards. The food items also seemed random in that they were not really items you could use to put together a meal. I put them away and didn’t really think much about it beyond that for several years. We simply appreciated having food in the cupboard. Now, as an adult, I tell my kids to pick their favorite food from our pantry when we are bringing donations to church. I look through their selections and then pick out complementary items to help make a complete meal. I tell my kids that we are providing our favorite meals to families who for one reason or another cannot buy their own food.
We have now spent the past forty days walking on a spiritual journey side by side as a family. We have grown closer to each other as we battled temptations for our favorite foods, persevered in our personal goals of longer prayer times, and learned about our faith through our senses. Our children have listened to us pray to God and our talks to them about Lent and Pascha. They have watched us as we gathered the family together for prayers before our home altar, a meal around the table, and church services. They have tasted the simpler meals and approached the chalice together as a family for Holy Communion. They have touched the money collected by our family to give to the needy, made the sign of the cross for prayers, kneeled in church, brought food for those who hunger, and held their candles on Holy Friday and during the Resurrection Liturgy. They have smelled the food cooking in their home, the incense rising to heaven with our prayers, and the flowers decorating the church. Lent was a time for us to repair and do some upkeep on our spiritual tools so we can go forth with renewed vigor and shine the light of Christ in our lives. We nurture our children in the Orthodox faith by doing all these things with them at home and at church, all while teaching them about the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jennifer Hock is the creator of Illumination Learning. (www.illumination-learning.com) It is a website that strives to be a hub for finding Orthodox Christian education resources. Her background is in elementary education and she has taught in the public school system as well as homeschooled her four children ages 16, 8, 7, and 5. She has worked closely with summer camps, oratorical festivals, church schools, vacation church school, retreats, and conferences. Jennifer and her husband were foster parents for 3 years until adopting three of their foster children and continue to support organizations helping children in need.