Our trip to the grotto: 8 tips on how to make a local pilgrimage with your children

I hadn’t been to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Md., in at least five years. And our sons had never been.

So a few weeks ago I invited one of Leo’s friends and her mother to join the boys and me for a visit to the Grotto.

Our sons are a very active 5 and 7, so you might not believe going to a shrine would be a great way to spend the day. But all three children thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

So did their mothers. In fact, Daniel will talk your ear off about the wonders of the holy water there.

If you are near Emmitsburg or another beautiful church or shrine, maybe you’d like to try going yourself. Here are a few thoughts on how you can make your trip both enriching and enjoyable:

1. Prepare your child.

In the days leading up to our trip, I told our boys a little about what we would see. I explained it was a place where people pray. I told them it was on a mountain. I talked with them about St. Bernadette, though I know they didn’t absorb much of it. That never stops me from sharing a story.

2. Keep your expectations low.

We didn’t ask our children to pause and pray at each Station of the Cross or say a rosary on the path of the sorrowful mysteries. Your child may want to do those things, and that’s wonderful.

Our sons generally want to see as much as they can as quickly as possible. For the most part, they want to run and climb. So we worked that into the visit.

We did struggle with keeping silence in the grotto, but we certainly tried.

And we saw many smiles from understanding adults who could see they were trying—but also bursting with enthusiasm over every new discovery. One kind man smiled as he thanked Daniel by name for moving out of the photo he was taking of his friend.

3. Let your child appreciate the experience—all of it.

It was tempting to encourage our boys to focus on the mosaics and statues and religious art.

They did look at those—but they wanted to take in everything.

They noticed the plants and trees. They spotted birds. They loved seeing the bubbling stream.

In my visits to the shrine before, I had never noticed as much natural beauty. It was magnificent.

4. Let them choose some of the activities.

One boy wanted to pet the lamb. The other wanted to be one. Fair enough. Facing the grotto was a steep hill of risers. The children wanted to climb the steps next to them and go all the way to the top. We let them go, watching them go all the way up and all the way down. It was their choice during a day that was not their pick, and they burned off some energy, too.

5. Carve out some moments for yourself, if you can.

I didn’t say a whole rosary—or even a decade of one. But I did get to pray, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, walking along the path, and kneeling before the crucifix at the last station of the cross.

Yes, there might have been two boys jockeying for the best position on the kneeler next to me, but I still had a chance to talk to Jesus. And I wasn’t just praying that no one would knock me off the kneeler—though I may have slipped in that request. It worked.

6. Seek out tangible experiences.

The children loved dipping their hands into the holy water. When we lit candles for friends and family, I let them choose the names—with a few reminders of people to include.

They couldn’t believe I was letting them hold the long wicks with flames on the ends. And they lit many more candles than I had intended, but that meant we prayed for more people than I had planned to, too.

7. Make sure the journey itself is fun.

We drove with our friends in their car, which was a highlight of the day. I brought plenty of snacks and drinks because it was an outing. As we were leaving the shrine, we stopped at the gift shop and the children picked out small, inexpensive items. Then we went out to lunch and had chicken and rice soup and hot dogs. Any day that includes a hot dog is inherently fun. I don’t know why.

8. Know when to call it a day.

I had hoped to take the children to the Seton Shrine, too, and time-wise we could have fit it into our day. But we also wanted to end on a high note, and not go home with tired, droopy children who felt they had been dragged around all day.

They were happy, tired, and well-fed. Besides, we had spent all our cash lighting candles at the Grotto. So home we went.

Have you made similar trips with your children? I’d love to hear where you’ve gone. I’m always looking for ideas.

As for us, we’re already looking forward to our next trip to Emmitsburg. Daniel says this time we’re bringing holy water home. And I’d better start saving my quarters for the candles.

Joining Theology Is a Verb and Reconciled to You for Worth Revisiting Wednesday on Dec. 30, 2015.

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