The other day I posted a suggestion or two for Lenten penances, along with some resources for children, and dear Annalisa asked in the comments,
Dear Auntie Leila:
How would you recommend approaching the Stations of the Cross with little kids? Mine are just six and not quite four (and one).
Your question is the perfect opportunity for me to attempt to clarify what I think is the most important aspect of passing on the faith to our children, and I keep repeating it — live your Lent (or other liturgical season or devotion or attendance at Mass or what have you) first and foremost. Secondarily you can think about directly teaching them more about whatever it is — keeping clearly in mind that knowing about a thing is the first (indispensable, to be sure) stage of understanding and loving a thing — of making it our own — but there are many ways to know about something.
I am sure you are not falling into this error, but I do see some people thinking that the only way to convey the faith to their children is to use didactics of some sort. To stuff their little heads with info. To inundate them with crafts. To “do more.”
Your choice of words — “approach” rather than “teach” — gives me confidence that you are trying to tap into the collective memory, not trying to come up with another activity for the kids to do! So that’s the first step.
If what I say is true, then let’s try to live the Stations of the Cross first and foremost.
Every Catholic church must have the Stations up somewhere where the faithful can find them. Sometimes they are just numbers and a cross. Sometimes they are elaborate depictions of each scene. (I brought my Stations work to Atrium this week for my Level III boys. You can see that I have them making their own drawings — “anything from a cross to a symbol to a detailed scene.” A little boy I think you know, Annalisa, promptly told me that “you could have Jesus standing before Pilate with his hands tied with rope, with Roman soldiers behind him and people standing all around him…” Just look at the size of each little box to appreciate the artistic imagination at work here!)
During Lent, very often the parish will have a Stations of the Cross devotion for the people on Fridays. If you can find one, see if it’s possible to make it a priority for the week to get the children there. If it’s in the afternoon, you can plan an early lunch and figure out the baby’s nap so you can make it. If it’s in the evening, you can eat an early supper, get the baby in pajamas, and head out for it. Maybe it works to meet Dad near work for this devotion. What a memory that would be for the children!
Now, if you are able, when you are at the church another time with the children and most people have left, take them around to point out these markers to them.
Help them see the numbers, the descriptions, and the images. But don’t worry about more than that. Fourteen things is a lot to assimilate all at once. Just get the idea across that they are there.
Later, maybe in the car going home, you can tell them that Jesus, from the time he was condemned until he was put in the tomb, went along a certain path in Jerusalem. People go there to that place just to follow his footsteps and to think about how it was for him — and that he did it all for us. Some day maybe we will go there, but for now, we can go in our imagination…
At the Stations of the Cross service, I hope it will be led by the priest and that people will actually follow him around the church to stop at each station.
Now, here’s the important part. You need to go there so that you can pray the Stations as your devotion. Not to “teach” the kids. They are coming along because they go places with you.
Will they be squirmy? Probably.
Will they slide under the pew and hit their heads on the rack that holds the missalettes and hymnals? Yes.
Will they have no clue as to what’s going on? Pretty much.
That’s okay. Little by little it will dawn on them. It may take years (and will certainly take years in the case of the one-year-old, of course).
The important thing is that they experience it as something outside of themselves, something about Jesus, something that inspires wonder precisely because it’s mysterious and desperately sad and also beautiful. They will sense a closeness to Jesus, if only through your own closeness.
That is living your Lent with them.
Don’t require affirmation from them. Don’t look for signs that they are getting it or experiencing wonder. Just live it.
Now, of course its best to pray the Stations this way — in church and with others, led by a priest. But it may be that circumstances don’t allow it. In that case, and also in addition to the weekly communal prayer, you can certainly pray them at home.
Now is a wonderful time to make a small prayer table or clear off the mantel for a crucifix and candles. (My book is about how to do this — I hope it is ready soon!)
What will be best is if Dad can lead the Stations with the family, using a simple text that everyone can understand (but one that doesn’t talk down to anyone), but don’t worry if you end up doing it during the day, without him, most of the time. You could have fourteen candles lit, and then extinguish them as you go along the Stations. Making a candelabra can be a family activity — you can use a log with holes drilled in it, or figure out how to make one from plaster (these directions are simple, although you want fourteen, not twelve, holes for candles — she was writing in another era). Another way would be to make a flip-chart using laminated pictures or to have the pictures set out on the table. (The children can handle them and look at them before or after the prayers, otherwise I foresee bickering.)
Pray “We adore thee, O Christ, and we praise thee: [kneel] for by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world [stand].” Say the station and pause, giving time for the imagination to work. If you like, you can add a short something about it. Then some people pray an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be. You can also say “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.”
Children will love learning the simple chant “By the Cross Her Station Keeping.” Hopefully it will be sung at church for the Stations, and you can sing it at home for sure. You can hear the tune here on the cyber hymnal, but be sure to realize that it must be sung without forcing the tempo. I can’t find a good example of actual singing for you at the moment.
Not for the Stations devotion per se, but just to contemplate the Way of the Cross musically, you can also listen to this lovely medieval setting — just listen and enjoy, not worrying about whether they are paying attention. And as far as I’m concerned, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of the most beautiful compositions ever created. It about broke Bridget’s heart when she was about four years old. (We had no idea why she was melting down until we realized what was playing at the time. Of course she didn’t know anything of what it was about, just proving the power of music. But we did have to stop the CD at that point, due to grief.)
You could have one of these selections playing while they make their own flip chart of sorts with the work I mentioned before, printing out the pages on sturdy card stock. This would take place another time, quite separate from the devotions. Maybe for religion class you can give them a plain cover sheet to decorate and put the words “Stations of the Cross.” Then have them put in their own symbols or drawings in the blank spaces of the other pages. The work can take weeks — no need to rush it. Punch holes at the top, tie with ribbon or string, and they will have their own prayer book which they can bring with them to the service.
Visit my Pinterest board for a few other ideas — but use them sparingly, only to reinforce their actual experience with the devotion — not to overpower it.
And that would be my suggestion for how to approach Stations of the Cross with children.