I apologize to all of you who celebrated your birthday this month (that includes one son, a daughter-in-law, my youngest grandson and a sister) but I hate February. I think that whoever decided to make it the shortest month of the year knew what he was doing. Oh sure, St. Valentine tried to distract us from the dull, dreary monotonous days with talk of love and hearts and flowers, but it’s only a momentary diversion. I have friends who walk around staring at light boxes to avoid depression. Others take to their beds to wait for spring. I go about my normal routine, but I’m in the state of perpetual grouchiness. Then to add salt to my wounds, Lent begins.
Being raised in a strict Catholic family (that means my mother was in charge) these 40 days and nights were to be spent fasting, abstaining and repenting. I never quite got the fasting part. I was told that two of the meals each day should not equal the third. The idea one patient nun informed our class was to experience hunger. Heck! I experienced it every day. I was always starving when I got home from school. The church has never pushed the fasting part of Lent, but my mother did. She told us that during Lent we couldn’t eat between meals. That was fairly easy between breakfast and lunch. I even made it until dinner, but going to bed without a snack really hurts.
As a child I thought that abstinence was pretty much the same as fasting. But the good sister said I was to abstain from “something” for the duration of the Lenten season. (I think season is an apt term; it feels like Lent lasts for four months.) Now this abstaining part was a big deal in my house. Mother would gather the six of us and we would have to announce what we were giving up for Lent. I figured out that she made us tell our siblings publicly so we could rat on each other if we slipped up. The year I decided that I was going to be a nun (every good Catholic girl wants to be a nun at some point in her early life, usually before puberty). I announced to the family that I was going to give up all sweets. (Almost all of us kids gave up sweets. It was easy because Mother never bought any desserts during Lent.) In addition, I was going to give up bread and potatoes. I will admit that for a fleeting moment I had the total admiration of all of my brothers and sisters. But it didn’t last long when my brother saw me the next day crouched in a corner chomping on a potato chip.
The last element of Lent back then was repentance. If you think that a 10-year-old doesn’t have much to be forgiven, then you didn’t go to Catholic school. It was a nun’s duty to point out just how many sins we children committed over the past year. By the time she finished with the 10 Commandments, I figured I’d broken at least five. She didn’t dwell on adultery and wanting “Thy neighbors wife” would have opened Pandora’s box. But I figured I’d done enough bad stuff that I was going straight to hell.
In addition to all of the above, we could not eat meat on Fridays. When I was younger, this law was in place throughout the year, not just during Lent. Every Catholic who is my age or older knows at least 15 ways to make tuna casserole — a Friday night staple. Mother always ruined it by adding peas, which I hate. But by the time I was a teenager, someone in the Vatican decided that meat was OK on Fridays with the exception of the seven preceding Easter. Since it was no longer a habit, I had a difficult time remembering to buy a fish fillet for lunch.
I remember one memorable Friday during Lent. I was starving and used every cent I had to buy a double cheeseburger with bacon. I had just taken the first bite when some nosey classmate gasped.
“Today is Friday,” she screamed loud enough for everyone in the fast food restaurant to hear. “You can’t eat that! It’s a sin!”
So this was my dilemma. Should I spit out the bite in my mouth or swallow? Remembering my manners, I swallowed. I tried to justify eating the rest of the sandwich. What would God think about wasting food? But I threw away my beloved burger and went hungry.
As an adult I know that God may sigh a little and shake His head at my humanness when I slip up during Lent, but I no longer stay awake at night thinking about spending eternity in hell. Now Lent is a time of reflection, prayer and good works. But I still continue to give up sweets. My only gripe is that every year right before Ash Wednesday my Girl Scout cookies are delivered and I have to wait until Easter to take a bite. Obviously, that organization is run by Protestants!
If you have a comment or want to tell me how the new double chocolate chip cookies taste, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org