Living in the Lenten Desert with Small Children

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A friend asked me recently if I had any tips for living in the desert of Lent while parenting small children. Like many of us, I suspect she feels stifled by the noise and the chaos of her daily life and desires to go off Jesus, to sit at his feet and learn from him in quiet prayer.

I can relate, what busy mom doesn’t want a little peace and quiet? And not just during Lent … but anytime.

It’s a bold statement, though, to say we want to live with Jesus in the desert because it means we want to commit ourselves to living like he did for forty days: hungry, thirsty, and engaged in spiritual combat! I don’t know about you, but I find a twenty-minute toddler temper tantrum or a teen tirade a challenge, so forty days of spiritual warfare and attack seems daunting.

Residing in the desert requires a type of fasting I’m not used to on the regular: no human company, water, food, and noise. It requires I deny myself those creature comforts I enjoy in life in order to bathe in his presence.

This type of existence is not for the faint of heart; it demands preparation and stick-to-it-iveness.

The desert is not a place for ease and comfort.

It is a place for spiritual renewal, a place to deny the self in order to encounter Jesus. In the desert we are called to greater silence and solitude in Christ, which is hard; it is not a vacation from daily life.

So my first “tip” about entering into the Lenten desert with Jesus is to ensure our intentions are pure. We must be sure that we truly thirst for Jesus’s companionship and not just an escape to a less hectic place.

The Desert Is Not A Destination: Mothers Live There

The other thing I think we mothers tend to forget that the desert isn’t a destination but is in our midst.

We live in the desert. We don’t have to go looking for it.

Motherhood is an opportunity to fast for years from certain comforts we most desire: sleep, an uninterrupted meal, peace rather than the epic tantrums with which we must sometimes deal, and even certain professional developments we may desire.

His fast of forty days prefigured the lifelong one that we are to practice by abstaining from evil deeds and by containing our desires within the limits laid down by the law of God. – Bishop Jacques-Benigne Boussuet

The second tip to living in the desert with small children is therefore this: We can practice abstinence and fasting every day, as a means of drawing close to God simply by using the opportunities we are confronted with in our daily lives. We can refuse to waste the many invitations to die to our selfish desires and our inordinate attachment to the world.

In The Desert We Learn To Distinguish The Voice Of God and The Voice Of The Evil One

… it is tempting to believe that life in the desert is full of sweet conversations with God, with no other care but this “holy laziness whose loving contemplation John of the Cross describes… – Carmelite Brother Jean-Gabriel de l’Enfant-Jesus (The Power of Silence, pg. 85).

But the reality is not as such.

Instead, when we live in the desert we are frequently besieged with lies from the Enemy, just as Jesus was during his forty days there. We must learn to distinguish these lies from the gentle voice of God.

… distinguishing the true inspirations from God from those which come from the devil, namely, that the former are always gentle, and peaceful, and lead us to confidence and humility while the latter are agitating and suspicious or even to presumption and the following of our own will. – French Jesuit and spiritual director Father Jean-Pierre De Caussade (emphasis mine)

The voice of God and the voice of the demonic are altogether different and we must learn to know who is speaking to us. Identifying the two different voices impacts how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Satan’s voice: “You’ll never change. What’s the point? Why bother trying?”
The voice of God: “I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

Satan’s voice: “Your work, your service? It’s pointless. No one cares.”
The voice of God: “I use the small, the weak and the sinful. Do you love me? ‘Feed my sheep.'” (John 21: 17)

Satan’s voice: “You’re not working hard enough, trying hard enough. Harder, faster, better, stronger–that’s the key to success.”
The voice of God: “… and make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as I commanded you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

Satan’s voice: “No one ever listens to you.”
The voice of God: “I hear what you have to say. You mean something. You are important.” (Isaiah 43:1)

Verses 15 and 16 of Psalm 44 describe the taunts of the evil one:

All day long my dishonor is before me
And my humiliation has overwhelmed me,
Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles,
Because of the presence of the enemy and the avenger.

Compare that to Psalm 29, verses 4-5, which describes the voice of God:

The voice of the LORD is powerful,
The voice of the LORD is majestic.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
Yes, the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

The devil’s words are evil, turbulent, and embittered, filling the mind with discouraging thoughts that rob us of our peace.

But Jesus’s words? They are gentle, calm, kind, and loving.

The third tip for living in the desert is to learn to distinguish who is speaking to us in order to ensure we are following the Right Voice.

The Desert Is Where We Encounter God

The demands of family life are not incompatible with the spiritual life; the din of daily duties and the turmoil of difficult parenting situations can be a great reminder of our acute need for a God who saves. In the middle of the throng of needy people, we are reminded of our own neediness and desire for a Loving Father who cares for us. We can look to him to fill us with the strength to build up our reserves when we feel weak from giving ourselves.

But this requires a commitment to put our relationship with Christ first in our lives. It means not regarding him as a superfluous and annoying responsibility to be tended to after we conquer the other, more pressing ones.

Jesus is the very first thing. He is the goal in the middle of the mess. He is the meaning in the madness.

The fourth tip for living in the desert with Jesus during Lent is to remember that He waits for us in the deep desert of our hearts.

We must run to him there and learn all He has to teach us.


Copyright 2018 Colleen Duggan

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About Author

Colleen Duggan is the author of Good Enough Is Good Enough: Confessions Of An Imperfect Catholic Mom, published by Ave Maria Press. She is a Catholic writer, teacher and speaker whose work has appeared in Catholic Digest, Creative Catechist, CatholicMom.com, Aleteia, and Integrated Catholic Life.

4 Comments

  1. The other thing I think we mothers tend to forget that the desert isn’t a destination but is in our midst.

    We live in the desert. We don’t have to go looking for it.

    Motherhood is an opportunity to fast for years from certain comforts we most desire: sleep, an uninterrupted meal, peace rather than the epic tantrums with which we must sometimes deal, and even certain professional developments we may desire.

    -Had this exact thought today but wasn’t sure how to articulate it. You hit the nail on the head! But eloquently. 🙂

    • The worst though is when I think there is something better for me outside of the desert. Like, come on, Jesus, I could do your will much more adequately if I lived on the beach instead. 🙂

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