Monday, March 7, 2011

Not just for your dryer anymore

Oh, I know they're spelled differently -- lint, Lent -- one is a common noun that describes all that fuzzy stuff that comes off your clothes as they're being tumble dried. I have a very artistic friend who created gorgeous handmade writing paper out of dryer lint once. Lent, the proper noun, is that forty day period of fasting and abstinence before Easter, when Catholic and (some) Protestant Christians alike walk with Jesus, uniting with Him in His Passion and celebrating His resurrection while anticipating His second coming.

Lent is a time of year that I always look forward to, although upon reflection I'm not sure why: I'm not all that good at it. There was, for instance, that year I gave up Diet Coke as a personal sacrifice and by the third of the six weeks, my family members were all going around with big, frightened eyes and white faces. Then there was the time I gave up sweets and berated myself loudly one morning for having jelly on my toast. ("Don't you think you're taking this to a ridiculous extreme?" my husband asked warily. "No," I replied. "I'm just sad because, if I had to goof up on my no-sweets fast, why did it have to be with TOAST and why couldn't it have been NUTELLA?!?")

I also start out with great spiritual plans: I will read a chapter of the Bible per day, pray a rosary, go to weekday Mass on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, plus go to the Stations of the Cross at least three times. I'll do both the morning and evening prayers! I'll read at least two books on the lives of the saints (making sure to choose people who were not gruesomely martyred, because eww.) That's always the plan on Ash Wednesday, anyway. By the first Sunday, I've already managed to crumble, substituting one decade for an entire rosary and looking at my Bible and feeling guilty instead of actually opening it.

Considering all this, is it any wonder that a non-Catholic, non-Lent-participating Protestant friend asked me, "If Lent is so hard, why do it?"

Ah, there's the rub. Why do it? Why go through six weeks of self-denial and abortive attempts to attain spiritual growth?

Because it's good for the soul, that's why. Jesus taught us to fast; he fasted forty days in the desert. Jesus taught us about self-denial; he went to the cross for us. Jesus taught us about prayer; at times, he took himself apart from the disciples to spent time in communion with his Father. At other times, he prayed with them.

Any time we work to be more like him, Jesus meets us more than halfway. And then there's that spiritual harvest thing: the more you give Jesus -- your love of desserts, your willingness to meditate on his life while praying the rosary, your trip into the confessional, and the money you'd usually spend on buying a fancy coffee dropped quietly into the poor box -- the more he gives you back. Seriously, even when my grandiose plans for spiritual advancement fall through and I end up doing only about a quarter of what I originally intended, I always feel like the measure that has been pressed down, shaken together and running over by Good Friday. I feel close to Jesus (I can hear him saying quite clearly, "Okay. STOP IT" when I'm thinking about doing something that would not make him proud, one of the less agreeable parts of that Lenten Closeness.)

I feel good.

And when the Easter Vigil is over and we're driving home in the darkness with the sounds of the bells and the Gloria still ringing in our ears, that's when I feel the best. Exultant, as sweet and full as the Communion cup I've sipped from, glowing in the true presence of the Savior.

So let's just say that I've experienced Easter Sundays without the trials of Lent beforehand and with those trials set constantly before me, and I would never, ever go back to the first way. You can only have a true Easter, a real shiny-happy glorious Easter if you've humbled yourself to suffer with Jesus in the desert.

Ten years ago, I would have never thought that could possibly be true. I would have said, quite wrongly, that God has no need of our silly sacrifices. The pastor of the Protestant church I was attending back then even said it during one of his sermons: "I can't understand why those Catholics think that their 'giving up' something matters to God." How could it possibly matter to God, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, if I stop eating candy for six weeks? Does it really matter if I give up Facebook or watching HGTV? Doesn't that seem a little weird, to think that God cares about such trivial things?

If you believe that, then let me ask you this: If your ten year old mowed the neighbor's lawn for week after sweaty week and then used some of the money he earned to buy you a birthday present, would you find that trivial? Would you say, "Aww, that's sweet, son, but listen, this is just a Penguin paperback you bought with the money you earned from cutting Mrs. Franklin's grass. It's not like this is a real gift, but thanks for trying."

OF COURSE YOU WOULDN'T. If your kid did that for you, you would fall to the ground and drown in a puddle of happy tears and have to be revived by the emergency medical technicians who came on the ambulance and the first thing you'd say when you came back to your senses would be, "Look. Look at this beautiful, lovely Penguin paperback my darling child bought for me." You'd probably sleep with that book under your pillow for the next million nights, and long after it had crumbled into cheapo paperback dust, you'd remember that sacrifice, that unselfishness, that desire to do something to make you happy, that honor given to you that was so much more than a trivial gift that cost $9.98 at Wal-Mart.

And do you think God, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being who told us to call him "Daddy," do you really think that he thinks anything less than that?

Try it and see.

A great article titled "What Can I Do Before Lent Begins" can be found here.

Catholic has an entire area of their website devoted to the hows and whys of Lent; you can check that excellent resource out by clicking here


Anonymous said...

Found your blog on Catholic Mothers Online and was attracted to your title being an insomniac myself. Really lovely blog and I will be back to visit for sure. Hope you will visit me too : ) Theresa

Amy said...

I've actually been looking forward to Lent. That doesn't happen too often. Great post describing "why do Catholics do that?"

Karen and Gerard said...

Interesting to me. I often wondered why Catholics make a big deal about Lent and as a Protestant, we never did. My mom explained that what some people "sacrifice" for lent, we sacrifice all the time such as not drinking alcohol, smoking, swearing, dancing, TV shows (some), etc. I still never got why the fish was substituted for meat though.

Shelley said...

Teresa, I will be happy to visit your blog. I'm a third order Carmelite - are you? Couldn't help but wonder from your name!

Shelley said...

Karen, I don't think your mom quite had the whole idea of "fasting" correct, at least in the way Catholics understand it.

First of all, there are plenty of Catholics who don't drink, swear, dance or watch certain television shows (shows like "Two and a Half Men" are completely verboten in our house, along with a few others). But it isn't really a fast if abstaining from objectionable things is something you wouldn't do anyway. It doesn't take much effort of self-denial to give up something you don't ever do anyway.

I grew up in a Protestant church that frowned on drinking, smoking, swearing, dancing and the like. There wasn't a posted list of rules or anything; it was just understood in our cultural context. A few older members of that church were staunchly opposed to playing cards (although Uno was okay for some reason) and going to the movies, so I understand the context of your mother's remarks.

With a true fast, however, you give up something you dearly love to eat or do or listen to or whatever. The idea is that if your chosen fast isn't something that HURTS when you give it up, it isn't really a fast and doesn't really require much self-denial or self-control. For a person who never swears to "give up" on swearing could be considered a virtue, but it isn't a fast.

Giving up all sweets for Lent, including candy, any sort of dessert, jam on my toast, even chocolate milk? That HURTS.

As for the eating of fish on Fridays, this is what I understand: Eating meat is a luxury, although here in the United States, we tend to be so affluent that eating meat has become an every day sign of our prosperity. To voluntarily abstain from meat is a difficult thing. We're so used to it being part of our daily diet. It's surprising how much of a challenge it can be. Meat seems to be EVERYWHERE, lol!

In our American culture, Friday has always meant the beginning of the weekend, a time to kick up your heels. In the Catholic Church, however, Friday has always been a day of penance - it is the day that Jesus died. Eating more simply and frugally (my pastor says from the pulpit "Eating at Red Lobster on Fridays is NOT A PENANCE!")is a way during Lent to acknowledge that sacrifice as we spend time in the desert with Him.

Anonymous said...

Yes...I am a Secular Carmelite (OCDS)...what a wonderful coincidence : ) There are quite a few Theresa's in my group : ) My name in Carmel is Theresa of Jesus Crowned with Thorns.

Shelley said...

Theresa, I was just at your blog!

I am an ELizabeth (I have a devotion to Elizabeth of the Trinity) so I am Elizabeth of the Holy Face of Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! What a beautiful name. I chose mine based on the insomnia and depression I suffer...I always felt it was my *own crown of thorns* and have always been drawn to that particular Mystery.