Wednesday, February 6, 2008

This is a Post That Isn't About Politics

By popular demand I am hear to talk about Lent. Huzzah, it's time to buckle down and fast by giving up something for six days, reveling in the sin every now and then to feel guilty about relenting, guaranteed pizza once a week, plus at much gloating as possible. I mean suffering piously! I'm sorry, do I sound sarcastic? That's because I went to Catholic School.
So did my parents, who instigated this family-wide weeklong discussion about today's day of fasting suffering, Ash Wednesday.
Ina (if I may identify her commentary), wondered what we think about the regime of Ashes, going to work as a marked person.
The King was raised to believe, Winifred says, "That is the point--you are supposed to be marked, proud to be a Catholic, and go out to convert others."
I think that's total crap. First, I was only ashed in the presence of 400 other blackened foreheads. Second, Catholics are
so not into conversion. Or, my Catholic upbringing wasn't. Ashes were about who was the Most Catholic. Outside in public, it made me a marked girl. I was already wearing a uniform though, so really, at that point the stares weren't noticed anymore.
Let me tell you about my version of Lent: First, everyone in school had an ashed forehead after the school wide mass. Inevitably my small forehead was ashed by the priest with the biggest thumbs, smearing a thumb print from one end to the other, covering my skin in ash.
Sacred ash. I spent most of the nineties with fringer that covered my head and tickled my eyelashes and as a result, was targeted during pre-scheduled bathroom breaks as "hiding God." I was also a smudgy fidgety kid and, wouldn't you know, 3/4 through the sermon I really needed to itch my forehead? And get black dust all over the pew? Sorry Jesus, but my forehead itched! Talking about it makes my hairline itch.
Scratch scratch scratch. Oh, that feels good!
By recess, laps around the asphalt kickball field meant that my ashes had slowly disappeared, as had the most athletic and/or dedicated boys. Of course, they were
so pious, but I was still asked, didn't I believe? It's a sin you know, to wipe off your ashes. It's like wiping off Jesus. Ew, can you believe a nine year-old would say that? Like I really want to think that Jesus is in the cinders on my face.
In the excruciating weeks leading to Lent in third grade we went around the room and announced what we wanted to "give up" for Lent. We were told that we would give up something
important to demonstrate our Love for Jesus who spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert without water or food, deep in prayer, or, in fisticuffs with Satan. Satan does a lot of third-grade style taunting, suspiciously similar to my pious classmates, and Jesus, you know, doesn't give in and stuff. This month of waterless fasting in the desert is never mentioned in his List O' Miracles, which is unfair. I mean the guy didn't die from dehydration. How long will I make it in the desert without H20? Maybe Jesus drank his own...nevermind.
So. All 25 of us announced our intentions. Chocolate, candy, pizza (this elicits gasps, as pizza is Friday's lunch in the cafeteria
and dinner at home as it is a meatless entity that can be consumed and enjoyed when land based meat is forbidden). Eventually a smartass announced brussel sprouts or homework and we collectively suffer through a lecture about how this is not a way out of something but a way to suffer for Jesus, and we all suffer for someone else's sin.
I spent seven years in the front of the class where I was forcibly placed with the most talkative and simultaneously least motivated student, going last in these "discussions."
"I'm going to do something nice," I announced fearlessly, "instead of giving up something easy." This does not go over well with a former nun. It does not go over well in second grade with the almost nun, and years later, still falls into a dangerous category. I am breaking the rules! I am a thinker! No wonder I declared myself an anarchist in eighth grade.
"It doesn't work that way," I'm told one year, "You have to give up something. For Jesus." I argue that my mom says it's okay, and isn't this a more positive thing to do? Looking back that was
very Lisa Simpson. Because we have an endless amount of weeks to consider, this continues until the teacher relents. Meanwhile, one of those athletic boys says, "I'm going to be nicer to my little brother. He looks up to me and sometimes I think it's annoying." Do you know what happens? Everyone think this is so nice. He basks in fake piety and he begins to glow in the praise that is showered. He becomes a hero.
In high school I am best friends with one of those people I have to sit next to in the front row. For many years she gives up "soda," distinguishing diet/caffeine free, root beer, and orange from Coca-Cola and Mr. Pibb. She suffers vocally, constantly, while I use my spare change on Fridays to buy a Cherry Coca-Cola every Friday when we talk around the corner for pretzels to celebrate the weekend. In high school she suddenly changes from soda to Ketchup because, "she needs it on fries." She is loud and raucous about this, convincing that the more we know, the more she is redeemed in the eyes of God. My senior year she tells her boyfriend that she is giving up sex to instigate a fight. He is Jewish and disturbingly devoted. She misses her morning classes on Ash Wednesday to go to Church and when she arrives during lunch, she is gloating, puffing her chest, making conversation about her ashed head. (Later, she accuses me of lacking integrity for not missing spanish and math to go to class. I tell her that mass starts at 6 and she didn't need to miss class.) When she meets the lunch table the sexually active girls are dying to know what her boyfriend, in a high school forty minutes away, thought. They met in the parking lot for a rendezvous between classes.
She's angry. He said, "That's okay. I respect your religion." This infuriated her so she punched him in the shoulder sand said, "You're supposed to be angry!" He didn't understand, and she confessed that she just wanted him to get mad. This hurt his feelings and he sulked the rest of the night. The irony, that she is an Awesome Catholic, but engaged in an absurd amount of premarital sex, is lost on her. I stop giving up serious things that year, realizing nothing will top TV in eighth grade, that there's no effort needed anymore in doing nice things, that doing nice things for Lent obscures doing nice things
because it's the right thing to do.
In college, Charlotte suggested I give up really outrageous things. Biscuit and I considered the following: knives, pre-marital sex, smack, words ending in [letter], studying. Nothing beats the year Charlotte gave up utensils, so we stick with smack. It's counterproductive because we never used smack anyway.
This year I thought I'd convince people into sinning. I tried to convince Winifred into brewing beer, as it is a male dominated business, but she doesn't drink beer and is uninterested. On campus I saw one forehead, and she looked bored. She was bored because she was going to class.

Here is what Charlotte had to say, with more clarity and less words:
I try to respect the idea that leaving the ashes on one's forehead is a way of a) showing deference to the sanctity of the ashes themselves and/or b) a way of keeping one's thoughts centered on the meaning of Ash Wednesday throughout the day. However, I cannot shake my irriation with smug people who sport the ashes to show just how observant they are. Having read about many a saint, I always thought that one should examine oneself for scrupulosity. I'm pretty sure that Jesus told people to fast in private.
I am of course uncomfortable with evangelism. Where is the difference between showing pride in belonging to a group and letting other people know that they are not part of it?
I do think that it is all too fitting that a nun would think that a good way to bring people into the faith is to tell them that we all must remember that we will return to ashes.
Way to pull people in with misery. Wouldn't the pancakes or donuts be a better sell? God created pleasure here on earth -- it's yours to enjoy before you turn to dust? And while you're at it, maybe you should share your pancakes with someone else who may not have any, because she's on her way to dust herself?

My grandmother is the most obedient and devout Catholic I've ever known. She and my grandfather are not ones to bend the rules, but that doesn't mean that she wasn't quick to remind me that the rules can be bent. Out with my friends at the skating rink Friday night and accidentally ate a hot dog? Eat a chicken nugget at a friend's house? Pick another day and go without. It's a system of check and balances from the most devout woman to grace the planet. Take that, third grade!

Finally, this is what Winifred had to say this evening. She said it was unpromted, so I'm thinking whenever she thought, "Wow I could go for a piece of chocolate between meals," she prayed for strength so as not to break the fast between lunch and processed fish square from McDs, to show reverence for Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen. (I just ate three Hershey kisses! They melted all over my molars.):
Hello Girls,
Here's the deal: If Easter is the very highest, most important holy day of the year--and it is in the Catholic church, then Lent, the preparation time for Easter, ought to be a joyous time. Perhaps one can reflect in a joyous atmosphere.
Love, MOM

Happy Lent, Ya'll! Have a good time suffering. If you need me, I'll be over here, snacking between meals and eating meat by the pound seven days a week.

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