Our greatest spiritual teachers can be our nearest and dearest. The familiar ones with whom we share sinks and sheets and silverware.
I don’t mean that all families are full of prophets, pastors or professors. But the simple fact of bumping up against each other’s needs and flaws can teach us volumes about humility, forgiveness and faith.
All of which come in handy during Lent.
This year as I prepared for the season’s practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, I realized three truths my children have taught me about parenting and Lent.
The first: You don’t have to do everything.
Parents today feel pressure to give their children every opportunity. Kids have become overscheduled, their activities overspecialized.
Take youth sports, for example — now a year-round industry of travel teams, elite coaches and offseason training starting with the youngest players. Meanwhile, the widening gap between rich and poor means that many get left behind, lacking the resources that allow a lucky few to play the game or join the club.
Whenever our family opts for less instead of more, I feel the nagging tug of guilt. What if our kids can’t play high school sports because they didn’t start as preschoolers? What if they miss out because we couldn’t afford all the music lessons, summer camps and extracurricular activities?
Yet contrary to popular wisdom, I find that the less we fill our family calendar, the more peace and contentment we feel.
Likewise, Lent can turn into a competition — with ourselves or others. The Olympics of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But less can be more for the spiritual life, too. Picking one or two simple practices often bears more fruit than trying to do it all.
The second: What matters is faithfulness, not success.
It is not wrong to desire good for our families. But if we start to lust after idols of success, we can lose sight of God.
No one is handing out trophies at the end — to kids or parents. No state championship, college scholarship, top-notch job, big house or comfortable retirement can guarantee joy or fulfillment for us or our children.
“We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful,” said St. Teresa of Kolkata. Her wisdom reminds us that society’s end goal is not the ultimate good.
So, too, for Lent.
If we inverted our view of Lent — not as a win-or-lose contest but as a slow walk toward God — we might discover what looks like failure is actually faithfulness if we keep trying.
The third: God is in control, not you.
Parents are no more in control of their child’s life than their own, despite our secret wishes, our deepest prayers and an entire industry of parenting experts, books and solutions.
We can give our children love, comfort, instruction and discipline as they grow. But we cannot shape them into our own creation or save them from the world (or themselves).
Only God can do that.
Lent is the same: a journey of humility. Not a do-it-yourself project of self-fulfillment, but a gift of growth to be received with head bowed. An invitation to turn back to the God who created us.
The plans we made must be set aside to take up the unexpected direction in which God leads.
This is often the case in families, too. Marriage, parenting and caregiving — indeed, every relationship between humans — ask us to surrender our desire to control to serve another in love.
This Lent, remember the ones closest to you. They may hold the truths God is waiting to teach.
Fanucci is a mother, writer and director of a project on vocation at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. She is the author of several books, including “Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting,” and blogs at www.motheringspirit.com.
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