My little Catholic school tended to make a big deal of the whole season. We had Caritas Project Compassion boxes with weekly fundraising goals, lots of liturgies and Masses, Religion lessons highlighting the importance of doing penance and worst of all: the Lenten Promise. This Promise (fasting, by any other name) was the subject of a great many conversations amongst my classmates in the lead-up to Ash Wednesday - who was going to give up what in order to become holy, pure and the recipient of the most chocolate eggs on Easter morning (we may have misunderstood the end goal).
Each year, I remember feeling incredibly burdened by my Lenten Promise. I suspect it was because I always fell into the trap of Competitive Promising - the act of ensuring that your Lenten fast is more sacrificial, penitential and austere than everyone else’s. If my friend gave up chocolate – I needed to give up all junk food. My classmate promised to abstain from computer games – well, no riding bikes, climbing trees or anything remotely resembling fun for me!
Consequently, the forty days of Lent always stretched dreary and dark before me, my faithfulness to God tested constantly by my sin-filled little sisters who ate Caramello Koalas right in front of me in flagrant disregard of my Lenten Promise.
Naturally, I am hoping to impart a different experience of Lent to my own children.
When I was small, I understood the ‘how-to’ of penance and fasting in preparation for the Easter celebration. I could have told you that the practice of fasting is in imitation of Jesus’ retreat to the wilderness for forty days and nights in preparation for his ministry (although the direct link between this and giving up chocolate was less clear to me). I even knew that the act of doing penance was to help us turn back to God and to deepen our relationship with Jesus. What my little self missed was the connection between my knowledge about Lent and the practice of giving up things I enjoyed. This was not because I was uninformed or because I was afraid to ask questions, but perhaps because there is a depth and breadth to Lenten spirituality that can be hard to capture in words.
As Catholics, we live Lent in preparation for the Easter Triduum, the celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes it seems to me that we like to skip over the “was brutally nailed to a cross in front of his friends and family” part of the story to get to the “but don’t worry everyone, he overcame death and rose again” happy ending. Obviously we cannot have one without the other, but I do think there is a bias in Western culture towards focusing only on positive, happy, ‘nice’ parts of life. We are almost afraid to confront the darkness, the pain, the death that exists all around us, presumably because it forces us to face our own vulnerability, sin, wrongdoing.
But what we miss when we skip the crucifixion part of the story is the call to ask ourselves the hard questions, the opportunity to examine how we are living, the impetus to ask ourselves what really matters. Because when all is stripped away (as death is wont to do), what is left?
In an interview I read recently with Br David Steindl-Rast, a hermitic Benedictine monk (Wow. Just wow.), he said that in order to practise gratitude, we must always keep death before our eyes. When I first read this, I found it hard to digest. In my experience, focusing on life’s awfulness does not often seem to inspire great happiness! And yet, as I have thought more about what he meant, I have come to realise the incredible wisdom behind it. If at any minute my life could be reduced to nothing, everything I have right now is a blessing, and cause for great thankfulness.
In the end, what I would like my children to know about Lent is this: it is an opportunity to strip back the complexity, to give away the excess, to reduce the noise and to live, breathe and love as though it could all be gone tomorrow. I want to tell them that Lent reminds us to live simply, thoughtfully and consciously so we can fully participate in the great and wonderful mysteries that life offers us. And I will gently advise them that if giving up chocolate doesn’t help them to connect with what matters most, then perhaps they need to rethink their Lenten Promise.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
(from “For the Children” by Gary Snyder)
Majella Dennis is a parishioner of St James’ at Muswellbrook and a practising psychologist. She is married to Matt and they have a two-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. Majella says, “I really enjoy hanging around at the intersection between spirituality and psychology.”