We are coming into Lent and right smack dab in the first week we have the feast day of St. Valentine, just four days after Ash Wednesday. Typically we associate Valentine’s day with flowers, candy, and sweet, happy thoughts. While love does indeed encompass all these things love is also often a call to sacrifice. In fact, St. Valentine himself is a symbol of sacrificial love, a fact that has been lost over the years.
When we talk about love and marriage today we often forget that love, as it matures and grows, becomes a decision, a choice. We choose to love even when we find ourselves living through difficult times with our spouse or children. On rough days we may find ourselves having to choose to love our families. Marriage, and parenthood, offer abundant opportunities for sacrificial love.
In addition to loving our spouse and children, we are also called to love our neighbor. In fact, our Church has defined seven corporal and seven spiritual works for loving friend, foe, and neighbor (more on the spiritual and corporal works here). With Lent and St. Valentines just on the horizon I’m going to walk us through some practical ways to live out the seven Corporal Works of Mercy, focusing on how we can teach our children sacrificial love through these acts of mercy.
Quick Take One: To Feed the Hungry
Those who are parents know this one well since we are responsible for providing three squares 365 days of the year. And sometimes it is indeed a sacrifice to come up with a meal as we stand before the bare cupboard like old Mother Hubbard. This might be because family illness or a broken vehicle has kept us from shopping or because we have experienced a crisis of finances. If it’s the latter, it’s a true act of love to swallow hard and ask for help. It’s important in that moment to remember that Jesus lived a life of poverty and, as hard as it is to be the recipient of help, those feeding the hungry need to help as much as the poor need the help. It brings both parties closer to Jesus. When we teach children to make snacks and eventually how to cook meals, they are learning to show love for their families and eventually to even share the fruits of their labor with neighbors. There is little that my children enjoy more than bringing fresh hot cookies to our neighbors.
Quick Take Two: Give Drink to the Thirsty
It is indeed a corporal work of mercy, as well as an act of sacrificial love, to get up at two in the morning to give a thirsty child a cup of water, especially if you have only just returned to bed from nursing the baby. But how can we help our children to experience, in a tangible way, what it means to give water to the thirsty? I mean, other than teaching them to help a thirsty sibling get a drink. Within our own communities we can have bottled water available to hand out to those whom we encounter on street corners, a wonderful witness for our children. In addition to taking actions close to home, we can participate in worthwhile programs that raise funds to drill wells in poorer nations where people walk miles, daily, to haul fresh water back to their home. We can encourage our children to tithe from their birthday money, allowances, or summer jobs to give in some way to the poor – whether by donating food and water to shelters or investing in an overseas program. Additionally, as a family, we can participate at local food banks with our time. This coming Lent might be a good opportunity to practice the idea of tithing our talents, not just our money.
Quick Take Three: Clothe the Naked
Any mother worth her salt has invariably climbed Mount Laundry only to tumble back down the mountain into the very mire of laundry she just climbed out of. She gets “clothing the naked”. But how to help our children learn about this need – besides making them fold every blessed piece of clothing in the house? I don’t know about you but I have to regularly purge our closets of excess clothing – in our case largely due to generous donations of friends and family. Have your children help you with this task and make the sacrificial decisions of which favorite shirt to give away (the one in better condition?) and which to keep. The added bonus to this is less laundry for the mountain.
Quick Take Four: Shelter the Homeless
Other than volunteering at a homeless shelter – how can we teach our children the value of helping those without refuge? I think sometimes we have to look outside the box especially when we are in the throes of raising a young family. I mean it’s not really practical to drag four children, six and under, to assist at a women’s shelter. During those years when they are too young to actually help at a local center, our children can make crafts and drawings to send to a homeless shelter to add cheer to the atmosphere there. When they get older we can help them collect necessities that shelters are always looking for, whether through organizing fund raisers or earning the money themselves to buy soaps and tooth brushes.
Quick Take Five: Visit the Sick
When we are overwhelmed with the every day chores of getting several children fed and dressed ourselves, how can we possibly be worried about others who are sick? And yet, there are many shut-ins and lonely elderly living in extended care facilities that would love selections of your children’s artwork that is flowing over and falling off your fridge door. These art efforts can also be directed towards designing handmade cards and mailed to soldiers recovering from injuries in vet hospitals. (Can you tell that I’m really into sharing children’s art?)
What can we do once our children are past the art stage? I remember one year we had almost every child down with strep throat and they were sad and miserable. A close friend’s children gathered up favorite games, toys, and puzzles and lent them to our kids. It meant so much for my ‘patients’ to have something new to use for a little while and even more to know that their friends were thinking of them while they were sick.
Although we are talking about the sick, sometimes those healthy in body are lonely in spirit and could use some love. Is there an elderly couple in your parish who are always alone, even on holidays? Your children could make them cards or share a favorite drawing with them or write them a poem. If you know them well enough, invite them for an afternoon tea party.
Quick Take Six: Visit the Imprisoned
Typically when we say imprisoned we are thinking of those who are incarcerated. But there is more than one kind of prison. There are the housebound, the elderly, and those adjusting to catastrophic life changes – such as the loss of one’s sight or becoming paralyzed. Besides sharing our children’s art, what other avenues will help us teach our children to love the imprisoned? Encourage older children to show Christian love by helping housebound neighbors or acquaintances by running errands for them. We can also encourage our children to visit those living in extended care facilities. Last Christmas my seventeen year old organized a caroling event for a retirement facility completely on her own. What a joy it was for her friends and younger siblings to see the happiness on the faces of those lonely people who are, in a sense, imprisoned.
We can also help those we will never meet by becoming involved in service animal training programs either by raising a puppy ourselves or helping to raise funds for those who can’t afford these very expensive animals. What a gift that would be to help a person imprisoned in their home (with perhaps epilepsy) to receive an animal whose training might allow them the simple freedom of going for a walk alone once again.
Quick Take Seven: Bury the Dead
Well, obviously this is not meant literally, at least not when you don’t know the person. So how can we help our children learn how to show love for the dead in a physical way? While they are very young, one possibility is to help with the cleaning of your church’s cemetery; sometimes your parish will have a committee that needs help raking leaves or planting flowers. When they are older they can help with funeral luncheons or receptions or cleaning up after the luncheon. When my sons were younger they frequently served funeral masses, another much needed way your family can offer physical support for the burying of the dead.
With Lent literally just around the corner, I hope that one or more of these ideas on helping your children love sacrificially will inspire your family to add some sacrificial love to your Lent.
Be sure to visit This Ain’t the Lyceum and see what other folks have shared for today’s Seven Quick Takes.