Wild indulgence following deprivation never seemed sensible!
Knowing that I had been raised Roman Catholic, although perhaps not understanding I’d left the church at the tender age of 13, an acquaintance asked me, “But you still give something up for Lent, right?”
Her question startled me. I hadn’t given anything up for Lent since I was 11 years old and still languishing in the prison of parochial elementary school. I’d never forgotten the nun-teacher who’d advised the 40 of us crammed into a single classroom (where, despite the overage ratio of students-to-teacher, we LEARNED–we dared not do otherwise; those nuns could be mean! Oops! Getting off the track here.) Anyway, Nun-Name-Forgotten advised us that sacrifice was good, a noble action, but of absolutely no use if we whined or were resentful. (We did and we were.) If that was the case, she advised us, we’d be far better off—and the world a much finer place—if we made a commitment to doing something: taking some positive action on behalf of ourselves, our friends, our family, or for everyone on the planet, as a Lenten resolution.
Alternately, we could commit to breaking a bad habit or developing a good habit. (Psychological science hadn’t yet, in that era, come up with that “30 days to establish a habit” concept, but at 40 days of Lent, the nun was probably on to something.)
This all came back to me recently as I watched a favorite movie, Chocolat, and recalled the many people I’d known who chose to give up chocolate for Lent. I also recalled one coworker, a darling woman, who nobly resolved to give up chocolate for Lent every single year that I knew her. And every year she broke her resolution in less than a week. Totally free of condemnation, I completely understood her failure. I never even CONSIDERED giving up chocolate. I’d sooner have given up my firstborn.
Of course, the chocolate-denied, both children and adults, indulged wildly on Easter morning, diving into Easter baskets and biting off chocolate bunny heads with all the fierce madness of deprivation. Even at the tender age of 11, this always just seemed to me to be the wrong way to go about things; consequently, my nun-teacher’s remarks were a revelation, and something that I would never forget. I don’t now recall what positive action I resolved to take during that Lenten passage so long ago, but I adopted her suggestion as a maxim and began to use it every year thereafter, even following my break with the Catholic church.
Sadly, though, just as with the sacrifices promised for the duration of Lent, the pledge to do something positive for the season falls into precisely the same category as New Year’s resolutions: noble and commendable, but rarely performed. Follow-through seems to be a gene lacking in the makeup of most human beings. I will say, though, that 40 days is a far more doable commitment than 365. Of the times I’ve resolved to take some positive action during the Lenten period, I’d say I’ve managed to adhere to my resolution at least half of the time. As for the other half, well, does start-stop-start again count? I tell myself that it does. Perhaps self-honesty might be the positive action I need to consider for the Lenten period.
Anyway, I ponder all of this each year as Christian Lent rolls around, even though I’m not precisely what most people would genuinely term Christian any longer, having sauntered down a very blended spiritual path in my lifetime. Still, if I am out and about on Ash Wednesday, I take note of those individuals whose foreheads are speckled with the grey dust that we Roman Catholic school children, chivvied to Mass early in the morning before class on that Holy Day of Obligation, were always warned we must not rub or wash off. (As if the coming season of enforced sacrifice weren’t punishment enough, we had to go about for a whole day looking as if we didn’t know the proper use of a bar of soap.) Now I wonder, glimpsing those ashy foreheads, if these people ever sat in a classroom listening to a wise nun as she explained the greater personal and societal value of positive action as opposed to deprivation and sacrifice. I wonder if it is too late for them to take that lesson to heart.
Regardless of anyone’s belief system, I think as I pass those ash-bespeckled faces, it’s still a truly wise and useful thing to set aside a few days each year trying to make ourselves, or the world, just a little bit better.