My Lenten Love Affair

11 Feb

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Those who have been reading my blog and/or listening to my radio show for a while know I have strong affection for the season of Lent. My fascination started in junior high when I learned about the Catholic practice of giving things up for Lent. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic area, I began to understand why we had alternating Fridays of fish sandwiches one week and grilled cheese with tomato soup the next at school. I watched my friends dutifully eat their meat free lunches if they bought from the school or bring the standard peanut butter and jelly if they packed. In addition, several of my friends also gave up at least one other thing, usually a treat of some kind that they liked very much but pledged not to consume during Lent. I was in awe of their self-control and self-sacrifice. I was even more in awe when they continued that practice into high school and beyond when they could have easily cheated without their parents even finding out. We learned about the sacrifice of Lent in my church, but it felt like my Catholic friends were living it, and watching my best friend give up the things she loved every year made an impression on me that lasts to this day.

Perhaps it stuck with me because I went to mass with my best friend almost as much as I went to church. You see, my friend worked on Sundays so she was required by her church and more importantly to us, by her parents, to attend mass on Saturday before we could go out and have fun. Now these were pretty smart parents because they required two things. They required that my friend bring home a bulletin, which showed them she walked in the door, but they also required her to know what the sermon was about, so not only did we have to go, we had to listen too. Then, as unfair as it seemed to me at the time, I had to go to church with my family on Sunday since the Saturday option didn’t fulfill my obligation in my parents’ eyes being that we were Protestant and all, and I got to hear the same types of sermons with a different spin.

After high school, I lost interest in religion and the practices of Lent. I still had friends who went to church and gave things up, but it wasn’t quite as fascinating. It wasn’t until I began living with my husband, who was raised Catholic, that the Lenten practice of abstinence truly became a part of my life. His family gave up candy every year and some gave up sweets entirely. That seemed to be more than I could handle so I started small with Cheetos. That may not seem like a big deal to anyone, but I ate a bag each day at work, so it wasn’t an easy task for me, especially when others around me didn’t abstain and didn’t care if I was. The thing is, when Lent was over, I continued to abstain. The same thing happened with Diet Coke the following year, and once I had done that, I quit smoking too. That was the result of my oldest child, but that’s a story for another day. The point is that because I gave up Cheetos and Diet Coke, I knew I could give up cigarettes for at least forty days. On March 11th of this year, I will be celebrating 22 years of my son’s life and of me being nicotine free. Cheetos and Diet Coke were the gateway to getting cigarettes out of my life.

So what, some might say. No big deal, others might think. For me it was a big deal. I gave up cigarettes at age 30. I had been smoking since I was 12 although I became a full blown smoker in college, but I had been smoking over half of my life. Giving up Cheetos and Diet Coke made giving up cigarettes possible. Then there was the year my husband and I gave up red meat for Lent, and we learned some things about ourselves. The first is that we will not become vegetarians unless it is forced upon us. Not only do we like meat, we both feel better when we eat it. I don’t mean to upset anyone who chooses a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but even after seven plus weeks, we knew meat was going to be a part of our lives. We are mindful of where it is sourced and how it is processed, but it stays and it was a growing experience for us both.

Lately, I’ve seen a plethora of articles almost belittling the process of giving something up for Lent, and I understand that they are pleading for people to go beyond just giving up chocolate, coffee or carbonated drinks, but I would assert that the process can start there. You can teach sacrifice through giving up something you love. When I think of how I felt not eating red meat or Cheetos, it puts into perspective how some people go without eating anything. Giving up something you like helps you to understand how much people will do to get what they want, not to mention what they need. Our children have given up something from the time they are five, and the negotiations and bargaining they do amazes me every time. I can only imagine the lengths people would go to without the basic necessities of life, and that is what opened my mind and my heart to seeing exactly that. Once I began to understand my reactions and my children’s reactions to denying ourselves, I was open to understanding the suffering of others and the privilege of my life. You see, while I can look at others’ lives and say, “there but for the Grace of God go I”, I don’t know what it really feels like. I have been short of money, broke and wondering how I would pay my rent, but I always had friends and family who could and would help me out when I needed it, and I was always able to find a way to pay them back. Some people don’t have that. Yes, I understand that if you want to change some things in your life, you have to change some things in your life, but if you don’t even know where to begin, how do you begin?

These are the questions that Lent has helped me to ponder because while I know that Lent is about sacrifice and suffering, I also know that the final result of that sacrifice and suffering, at least in the tradition I was raised in, leads to resurrection and light, especially when we combine that sacrifice with service to our fellow human beings, and that is where the magic of Lent really happens. The other side of Lent that is becoming more and more prevalent is not just to give something up, but to add something to your spiritual practice. Some people add prayer time or reading the Bible. Some experience the Divine through animals and might volunteer at a shelter. Some might simply love nature and choose to take a walk with a bag and pick up trash along the way. Some may pick an item per day to donate to a worthy cause. What may seem small to one person may be huge to someone else. Maybe it’s as simple as smiling at someone every day and making a positive difference in this world. In my book, no matter how small the gesture, it still adds up.

This morning I read an article about how ancient Christians would fast and deny every day of Lent. They only ate one meal. If that is what you are called to do, then I say go for it as long as it doesn’t negatively affect your health, but even the Pope is calling for a different approach. He is calling for people to give up indifference and to connect with other human beings. I think that is a wonderful idea. When “we” get to know “them”, things change. We learn to appreciate one another even when we don’t or can’t understand each other’s lives. We learn what really helps and what doesn’t. We evolve and change because we can’t look at the world the same way anymore. We quit believing what the news tells us to believe and learn to understand life on a much different level because we are living it instead of having someone else tell us how life it. Lent becomes an evolution of who you are, who you want to be and how to get there. Can it all start from giving up a bag of Cheetos per day? Well, it did for me, and that’s why I have a mad and wild love affair with Lent every year.

This year, I’ve given up sausage, which doesn’t sound like much, but that has been part of my breakfast for the past six months. This year, I felt like it was time to healthy up breakfast so sausage is out. Of course, that also means no chili, spaghetti and meatballs or goetta for me either because all of them have sausage in them. By the way, for those who don’t know, goetta is a local delicacy with beef, pork (often sausage) and pin oats with seasoning. It might sound gross to some people, but we love it. That is my sacrifice, and although it doesn’t come close to giving up red meat, it’ll do. On the flip side, I’m part of a creativity bootcamp this month, so my contribution is a combination of books I’m writing. The first one is about motherhood and I’ve pledged to have it ready for the editor by the end of the month. It scares me to share that, but it’s out there and I’ll keep you updated. The other book is a collaboration about the high school to college transition in the US. A friend and I are working on it together and just when we think we know what direction we’re going, it changes a bit, so we are having fun watching this book take on a life of its own. How does that give back you might ask? Well, I’ve already talked it over with my husband and a large portion of everything I make will go to helping others. Most of the money donated will not be tax deductible. It will be in the form of gifts of the heart for those who don’t have tax deductible status. So, there you have it, my love affair with Lent. It helps me weather the weather. It helps me evolve and emerge a better person, I hope, and it gives me direction for a life I hope will be well lived for a long while. As always, I appreciate your taking the time to read what I share. Thanks for being you and have a great day.


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