We change our shopping habits as Ash Wednesday looms, stocking up on fish fillets and cheese slices, cans of tuna, toasted sunflower seeds to sprinkle on crisp lettuce salads. I simmer up a batch of veggie broth. When the day dawns, we are ready.
So we greet Ash Wednesday with eggs and toast–a hearty breakfast to last until lunch; there is no eating between meals on this particular day. Choice of sandwiches for lunch–cheese or tuna or peanut butter; for dinner, a homemade mac and cheese and fresh, crisp green beans to accompany the fish fillets we grill. It is not exactly awful, but the gaps between meals seem long on this day of still-observed fast and abstinence–this day that ushers in a season of fasting, denial, sacrifice.
Ash Wednesday is like a heavy, solid metal security door, one that needs shoulder and hip pushing to open, protestingly, into the long, dimly lit tunnel that is Lent. And once I’ve shoved my way inside, that door snicks firmly shut behind me. There is no way out but through. I set off, reluctant and with threadbare grace, for a six week slog to Easter.
I learned about Lent as a child.
Like many good Catholic children, I cut my reading teeth on stories of the saints and martyrs. I read about the three children at Fatima, and how, devout and prayerful, they would mortify their flesh by wearing rough, horsehair belts underneath their garments, chafing their tender skin. They would deny themselves any kind of treats, eating only what they needed for sustenance. There were no pictures in my book, but I imagined their glowing, ascetic faces turned toward the heavens, awaiting the appearance of the Lady, cleansed and ready to receive her special message, that special sign of favor.
I read about Saint Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who knew from early childhood that she was destined for a life of prayer and sacrifice as a Carmelite nun. She petitioned the Holy Father for special dispensation to enter the convent before she even entered her teens. Admitted to the cloistered life, she found that she did not have any special gifts of living in community, not as a cook or a confidante. So she embraced the role of acceptance, not arguing when her sisters treated her meanly or unfairly, spending every possible hour on her knees, praying for all the ills she knew of in the world.
I imagined that kind of life–a life of self-denial and prayer. I wrote to the Carmelite sisters; they must have been used to receiving letters from passionate Catholic six-year-olds who’d just encountered the saga of the Little Flower. They wrote back, counseling patience and prayers for discernment, and enclosing informational brochures.
I burned with religious zeal, but I also enjoyed trying to burrow through the contents of my mother’s never-empty cookie jar and the raucous fun of a family wiffle ball game in the backyard after dinner.
And I wrote to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris too, and their replies and the nuns’ replies seemed equally to come from exotic, never-to-be-visited worlds.
By the time I was seven, my career aspirations had morphed to the world of rock and roll–maybe I’d be the fifth, and first female, Beatle. But then Lent would roll around, reminding me, again, of the value and necessity of sacrifice.
I learned about Lent at the Catholic school I attended. Sister Mary Elizabeth, the first grade teacher, inspired me with the joy of sacrifice, but didn’t offer too many hard and fast techniques. (Looking back, I think Sister must have been twenty at the most, and I wonder how the rollicking Sixties affected her vocation.) The lay teachers who came after, in grades two and three and four, shaped me more specifically. Mrs. H was clear and firm and a little dour: she saw no point in wimpy sacrifices. If sweets were what you loved, give up sweets for the whole six weeks. You loved TV? Give up ALL television shows. Make your sacrifice, she said, be something that you FEEL, something that is muscular and demanding.
Sacrifice, Mrs. H opined, was meant to hurt.
Mrs C and Mrs M were a little more flexible. They advocated giving up one thing–say, cookies–making it okay to have, occasionally, a cupcake or a little dish of ice cream. Or give up a flavor, they suggested, like chocolate. Then you could still have Payday bars and snickerdoodles; you weren’t entirely bereft of sweetness for a month and a half.
Or give up, perhaps, one favorite television show; go outside and play instead.
They debated with my friends on a controversial concept: whether or not Sundays were Lenten ‘days off.’
Both Mrs C and Mrs M were plump, cheerful, silver-haired, the kind of women who illustrated the concept of ‘grandmotherly.’ Mrs H was small and taut and scrawny.
My mother was small and taut and scrawny, too, and her views aligned pretty closely with Mrs. H’s. Sacrifice wasn’t sacrifice if it didn’t hurt; sacrifice was also no good if you broadcast it around. So my friends would wail and moan about how hard it was to live six weeks without cookies. I would clamp my mouth shut over the loss of my dear friend chocolate for the duration. Being dramatic about it, my mother taught, was a pleasure in itself. To truly be a sacrifice, the ordeal must be endured in silence. She brought all of the joy of her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing to her fervent conversion to Catholicism; there was no arguing.
And there were no Sundays off.
As I trudged through that childhood Lenten tunnel, the light would grow dimmer as the end approached. Lent broadened out into Holy Week, and the statues in the church—Mary in blue, with her immaculate heart; Jesus in red, his right hand raised to bless us, his sacred heart ablaze; St. Joseph, humbly clad in long brown robes, patient and quiet and giving–would be completely shrouded in deep purple drapes. The candles would flicker at daily Mass; Latin would be intoned, with no music; the shrouded figures pulsed with mystery and danger. There was often incense, chinked rhythmically from the jeweled golden censer. The air was dense with smoke and a heavy, spicy odor, an environment that was tough on little people fasting three hours before receiving the Body of Christ.
Roman Catholic Lenten and Holy Week activities in the early 1960’s were not for the faint of heart.
We re-enacted the Last Supper at church on Holy Thursday, our fathers on the altar, baring their white, frail feet for washing. We spent three hours–from noon until three–in church on Holy Friday. We had no Eucharist, but we lined up to inch toward the altar and to kiss the pale and holy plaster feet of Jesus.
Holy Saturday was like a day to hold your breath, a nothing day, wedged in between the sere and devastating drama of Friday and the glorious joy of Easter Sunday.
And oh, the light of Easter Sunday! The necessary travail of being bundled into scratchy dress clothes, with anklets that drooped and pinching shoes and a hat that would never stay on my outsized head, no matter the number of bobby pins pressed into the battle,–that was all endurable because after that, the hat came off, the jeans came on, and the Easter basket was there–a basket full of candy for just me, if I hid it well enough. (Prevailing wisdom dictated eating the good stuff first, just in case.)
There was ham for dinner and some kind of yummy dessert and Jesus was risen. And after the magnificent holiday was over, we were standing in the pouring-down light of that wonderful thing, ordinary time.
And the Lenten sacrifices disappeared back into that tunnel, dim memories that had no effect on life, moving forward.
I have traveled some distance, in activity and belief, from those austere early days, but the practice of Lent stays with me. Every year since then, I have at least nominally observed Lent, giving up, some years when I was a young partier, beer and alcohol in general, but more often, my dearly loved chocolate.
My reasons have morphed, from guilt (“Our Lord spent three hours in agony, giving up His LIFE for you, and you can’t last six weeks without a bite of chocolate????”) to greed (“Chocolate tastes so much better when you haven’t had it for a month and a half!”) to an acceptance that sacrifice is a mindful way to center my thoughts, to reflect on what I believe and how I live. So I have pushed away the beautiful chocolate cake, sneaked a Payday bar from the vending machine when my sweet tooth got the better of me, and stopped at the chocolatier to buy a wonderful treat for Easter morn.
And the long season of Lent, for years and years, has passed by, and the door slammed closed on Easter morning, and life returned to exactly where it was before I spent six weeks in that trudging tunnel.
Belatedly, a thought occurs to me: shouldn’t what I do, or what I don’t do, during this Lenten tunnel-time somehow change me? Shouldn’t my life be somehow informed or transformed, after the measured observance of six weeks of mindfulness?
This year as Lent begins, I am working with a Julia Cameron book, The Prosperous Heart, a creativity course intended to help the reader-user clarify and change her relationship to money. Cameron proposes some rules: keep track of money spent–any and all money. Take walks, write morning pages. And don’t, she tells me, ‘debt.’ So–no whipping out of the credit card to order a book because I have a coupon, because there is a discount, because the author is a favorite blogging buddy…because I just NEED to have that book. Oh, I can have it–but I have to plan and pay for it with real money. I have to be mindful of where my money goes and where my spending leads.
I give up my credit card for Lent, and I find myself growing critical, considering now every blithe expenditure, the need for the cruller or the magazine, the scarf or the silly gift. Do I need that? I ask myself. Could I MAKE that?
Sometimes, I realize the item is a need, and I buy it. But more often, I return it to the rack and leave the store.
Often, these days, I don’t go into that store in the first place.
I find some books on the ‘New Nonfiction’ shelf at the library. One shows ways to make colorful old t-shirts into bracelets and flowers and spring-time wreaths. The other is written by a blogger who has embraced sustainable living. The things we need, she suggests, are usually already on our shelves or in our cupboards; we can concoct rather than shop. I check those books out, and I take them home to pore through.
A daily reflection challenges me: what are you doing, along with your sacrifice? And I think about that, and I think of all the undone projects, and I decide that, while in the tunnel, I will complete as many unfinished starts as I can. I’ve knitted, for instance, torso, limbs, tail, and head of a silly monkey doll; those flat, empty monkey parts nestle next to one panel of a scrap-knit afghan. I’ll get my needles out instead of playing two-suit spider solitaire on the computer after dinner.
There are the brushed silver knobs I bought for my kitchen a year ago, along with the paste and paint to repair the random gashes and dents in my dark wood cabinet doors. There is a little pot of spackle, meant to repair cracks in the settling walls. There is semi-gloss paint to touch up the woodwork.
There are boxes to be mod-podged, and there are cracked but beloved ceramic pieces waiting to be morphed into outdoor mosaics. There is furniture to paint. There is mending to be done.
In the time I am not debting, perhaps I can be creating or completing.
I feel, this year, a little of that reverent mindfulness that imbued my early Lenten journeys. There’s a reason for this, I think, and the lack of debting, and the act of fixing, weave together to build me a sense of actual change, and a bubbling sense of hope. Maybe, this year, I will develop a new habit. Maybe, by April 16th, my home will look as different as I project my spending habits will. (And it won’t hurt if I cut down on my chocolate consumption…but that won’t, this year, define this season for me.)
This year, when I climb out of the Lenten tunnel, climb into my sun-drenched ordinary time, I hope those ordinary days are a little differently shaped. I hope I will be buoyed by a sense of completion, lightened by awareness of living cleanly within my means. And I’ll be a little different, with shelves that are cleared and satisfaction in finishing long-simmering, oft-delayed projects, and the peace that mindfulness and restraint have given my relationship to the money I earn.
This year, I embrace Lent, and I look forward to seeing a change in the light—a change in the LIFE–at the end of this particular tunnel.