Lenten Exercise for Children

How's Lent going?

We're coming up to the Fourth Sunday of Lent: Laetare ("Be joyful!") Sunday. Just a bit past the halfway mark in Lent, this rose-colored celebration encourages us to stay faithful to our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Here at the Apostleship of Prayer, of course, our favorite part of that Lenten trifecta is prayer. Our mission is to encourage children to cultivate vibrant, personal prayer lives of their own. The spiritual giant Romano Guardini warned against "empty reciting" in prayer, so the Apostleship of Prayer encourages ways of praying that will grow with young people as they mature. 

©2015 Apostleship of Prayer

©2015 Apostleship of Prayer

One of my favorite resources for children in 3rd through 7th grade is our "3 for 3 Prayer Experiment." It challenges students to observe three deliberate times of prayer each day for three days, and then reflect on the results. Perfect for a middle-of-Lent prayer boost!

Our Experiment was inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Throughout the Exercises, St. Ignatius includes directives to help create a suitable atmosphere for the retreat. To help participants dive in fully to the retreat experience, St. Ignatius suggests stripping away customary creature comforts. Taking less food, remaining in darkness, limiting sleep, imposing penances--all these things might help retreatants loosen attachments to worldly things and feel more keenly their dependence on God alone.

St. Ignatius is careful to note that each person is unique. Whatever fasting, prayer postures, and penances people observe should always be tested through "changes," or what I like to call experimenting. St. Ignatius writes,

When someone making the Exercises fails to find what he or she desires . . . it is often useful to make some change in eating, sleeping, and other forms of penance, so that we do penance for two or three days, and then omit it for two or three days. Furthermore, for some persons more penance is suitable, and for others less. . . . Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better than we do, through changes of this sort he often enables each of us to know what is right for her or him. (Spiritual Exercises, #89)

This experimenting is one aspect of the great genius of Ignatian spirituality. We read in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, "Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil." All of us, including our children, can apply this to our prayer lives.

Children are natural learners; they tend to test everything by instinct. Sometimes, like in that classic Triple Dog Dare tongue-freezing-to-a-flagpole scene from A Christmas Story, children test things despite their better judgement and the warnings from others. I remember once testing what would happen if I used my finger to block the steam coming from a hot-water vaporizer. (Steam burns are terribly effective, if not very attractive, teachers.) Children like to experiment, so why not encourage them to experiment with prayer?

The idea is certainly not to test God, to see whether a singing leprechaun astride a rainbow-colored unicorn will appear upon a pile of M&Ms before breakfast. Rather, the goal of a prayer experiment is to show ourselves what a difference prayer makes in our lives--not just the last-ditch-effort kind of prayer we embrace in times of distress, but the kind of habitual prayer that sustains us like our daily bread. Here is the overview of the prayer experiment.

©2015 Apostleship of Prayer

©2015 Apostleship of Prayer

The packet includes

  • Words to a morning offering prayer
  • Lunchtime prayer reminders to cut out and drop into lunch boxes
  • A guide to praying the evening review, and
  • Space to record and reflect on what happens during and after prayer

Prayer is powerful. When we share our heart’s desires with the Lord, beautiful and wonderful things happen: our hearts become more like the generous Heart of Jesus, and we grow in awareness of how God listens to us and gives us all good things.

At the end of the book of Job, God tells Job’s friends to ask him to pray on their behalf: “Let my servant Job pray for you. To him I will show favor” (Job 42:8). God is always calling us to pray more. He calls us to pray as faithfully as Job, so that our prayers on behalf of others are effective.

A lot of us make new year resolutions to pray more. And then we make Lenten resolutions to pray more. And then summer comes. . . . Sometimes we're just not sure how to start. Children can feel that way too. Perhaps some direction from St. Ignatius can help: try it! Spend a few days praying more than usual, at times that work well, and then reflect on that effort.

The desire to pray comes from God, of course. Paying attention to that invitation is also God's gift. Daily prayer can help us acquire the habit of searching for God in all things. Prayer matters. As Jesus says, "Come, and you will see" (John 1:39).

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