April 12, 2024

By Katie Eskro

Even though the Church has given us a framework for preparing in Lent, such as fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat on Fridays, when it comes to discerning an extra penance we want to add, it can be a struggle. Throw in family life, already full of busyness and sacrifices, and it can be even more difficult to discern something that will be a sacrifice, but not so difficult that it becomes a heavy burden.

Betsy Madsen, parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish in Aberdeen, knows this balance well. “When my oldest kids were little,” Betsy says, “I had a few lenten seasons where I tried to do too much at once … Those years I would quickly burn out.”

In the years of changing diapers, nursing, getting children down for naps, and quiet time being scarce, it’s especially easy to choose spiritual practices that push parents over the edge rather than bring them closer to Jesus and his suffering. Betsy has learned, “If I incorporate my lenten penances into my daily routine—not trying to change too much at a time—my Lent is much more meaningful.”

Betsy has begun doing this by living a “St. Therese Lent.” “I pick something that I am doing,” Betsy says, “and just do it better or more joyfully.” Betsy got the idea from one of her favorite religious books, St. Therese’s “Story of a Soul.”

“In the book, St. Therese advocates offering up the little things in life or doing extra for God, joyfully,” Betsy says. “When I first read the book, I thought that this was something that I could actually do, something little.”

This has inspired Betsy to live her Lent more closely with St. Therese’s “little way,” and has made her lenten journey more peaceful, relaxed and preparatory for Easter.

These small acts might be smiling at a stranger, visiting an elderly person, making a meal for a family who has just had a new baby, or not hitting the snooze button and getting up a little bit earlier for prayer time.

“I believe that when the sacrifice is little, we think about it many, many times a day,” Betsy says. “Each time we think of it, we are telling our Lord, ‘I love you, I won’t do this,’ or ‘I love you Lord, so I won’t eat that.’ Each time we can do that, it’s a win.”

Betsy has learned that by living Lent in this way, it isn’t just about the sacrifice, pushing her will or her body to extreme limits, but rather it’s about how that sacrifice turns her face toward Jesus and reminds her of his presence in her life.

Celebrating Lent as a family

As her children have grown, Betsy and her husband, Scott, have invited their children into living Lent this way together as a family. Scott and Betsy have five children between the ages of 20 and 9, and as their children have grown, they have done this in different ways based on their children’s age and development.

Before Lent begins, the family has conversations about what they feel they would like to give up as a family. Often this includes things like “eating less sweets, eating more simple meals, going to the church more often, watching less television and being on the phone less,” Betsy says.

For their teenagers, Scott and Betsy encourage them to also choose a lenten penance of their own that they feel called to take on.

“As the kids get older, we encourage them to take on their sacrifices that are appropriate for their age,” Betsy says. “We still do our family sacrifices but talk to them about how they want to grow in their faith during Lent and how they will do that. Having someone else know [their] intentions and also writing them down is very helpful.”

However, Betsy tries not to “police” over her older children and allows them the space and mercy to fail and try again. “Teenagers are still needing guidance, but they need to make the faith their own as they will be out of the house soon,” Betsy says.

One of her teenagers’ favorite lenten practices is spending more time in church. “They have a quiet space to talk to God on their own terms and to hear his voice,” Betsy says. This quiet time with God has allowed her children to grow in their relationship with God in a unique way.

They also try to go to confession as a family during Lent. Seeing each other and other people of the community receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is such a gift, Betsy thinks. “As they get older and leave the house, having this visual helps engrain that this is for a lifetime, and one needs to choose it and make time for it,” she says.

The meaning of sacrifice

Betsy and Scott have conversations about the why behind the penances and practices of Lent. One example is how Betsy tries to make two simple, meatless meals a week during Lent, and when they eat these meals, they talk to their children about how blessed they are to have such good food available to them. Having simple meals can remind them of how much they have been given when so many in the world go hungry.

“We talk to the kids about how it would feel to be those children without food,” Betsy says. “Why did God place us here, in a warm house with food and family? How would we respond if those individuals asked us for food? Should we wait until they ask us?” In this way, Scott and Betsy help their children to remember those in need and to be thankful for what they have been given.

Betsy also encourages her children to keep making these small sacrifices because it will help them to grow in virtue. “I tell my kids that we have little sacrifices throughout Lent so that we can practice saying no to ourselves. Having self-control and saying no to something that we want will make it easier in the future when we are tempted and really want something that is not good for our soul,” Betsy says.

Another small way Betsy has found to help her children enter into the penitential season of Lent is through the lives of the saints. She enjoys reading the book “St. Therese and the Roses” to her younger children. It is a children’s chapter book and helps them understand the purpose behind small penances and sacrifices.

For her older children, Betsy helps them find a book about one of their favorite saints and a Bible they can journal in. This spiritual practice has helped her children understand the spirit of sacrifice and suffering.

It’s all about Easter

The Madsen family also recognizes the importance of not losing sight of the purpose and bigger picture of the lenten season. It is preparation for Easter, the biggest feast of the Church year, and this should not be forgotten in the midst of Lent. “After you fast, you feast!” Betsy says.

Betsy also thinks it’s important to remember that Lent is a gift. As Catholics, we should choose an attitude of joy and gratitude for this season. And when it comes to Easter, the Madsen family celebrates in a way that shows this joyful and grateful attitude.

“We make the celebration as big as we do for Christmas because Christ is risen! This is a reason to celebrate,” Betsy says. And the celebration is so much more meaningful after a Lent of making small sacrifices.

“If you celebrate Lent as a family,” Betsy says, “Easter is so much more joyful!”

Katie Eskro is a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Aberdeen where she works as coordinator of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She has a degree in journalism and is pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy.