I grew up in a Protestant household in Saskatchewan, converting in Toronto as a prelude to marrying a Catholic. Having made the step partly because “mixed marriages” were looked upon with much disfavour, I worked very hard to learn and understand the rules and rituals of my newly professed faith, to become, in the jargon of the day, “a good Catholic.”
Generally speaking, none on this was difficult, except for Lent. Protestants, during my youth, did not mark Lent. We celebrated Palm Sunday, treated Good Friday as a solemn day although there was no church service. We girls always had a new outfit for the Easter Sunday service which was followed by a massive, egg-centred breakfast crowned with broiled grapefruit halves smothered in melted brown sugar and crowned at the core with a maraschino cherry. The special tradition of the day was the massive Easter basket hunt, with the adults as involved as the young fry.
It wasn’t because of Lent that we didn’t enjoy chocolate bunnies and marshmallow eggs or mom’s hot fragrant homemade hot cross buns before Easter. Those items were, simply, reserved for the Easter celebration itself, to make them particularly special.
I had no lifetime practice in choosing something important to give up for Lent, for 40 days, excluding Sundays, so I polled my friends. Most of them gave up sweets, cigarettes, chocolate. One gave up potatoes. I would weigh the options carefully, knowing that frequent trips to the confessional would not entirely alleviate the guilt that would come from breaking a lenten promise. Therefore, it was essential to give up something that I would miss, but could survive without. TV was too easy. I prefer radio. Giving up reading would have been impossible. I generally settled on chocolate, my favourite food group, but even that choice was fraught with questions. In an era when all of us young moms talked incessantly about the need to lose five pounds, was this honest self-denial, or just an excuse to go on a diet for 40 days? It was a question I never resolved to my own satisfaction.
Nothing I did left me feeling that I had made a true Lent. Praying harder didn’t solve the practical problems — or at least not immediately. It was many years later when a long-dead poet gave me the answer. By then, perhaps, I had heard some wise person point out that it was easier to practice a positive action than to eliminate a negative one: “Learn to chose my words carefully,” rather than: “Stop being such a grouch,” which made immediate sense — but it was Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) who drew the word pictures that made the concept real.
Herrick’s To Keep Thy Fast includes these lines: “Is this a Fast, to keep/The larder lean/And clean/From fat of veals and sheep?/Is it to quit the dish of flesh, yet still/To fill/The platter high with fish?/...No: ‘tis a Fast to dole/Thy sheaf of wheat/And meat/Unto the hungry soul/It is to fast from strife/And old debate/And hate;/. . . To starve the sin,/Not bin . . . ”
I was raised in a farm household where social justice was a way of life, not a word. Mom and Dad didn’t fast, but they made a life’s work out of feeding and clothing people in need. No matter how little they had, it seemed, they could always find something to share. There was no fuss or particular ritual or discussion. There was no great show. Theirs was a quiet, unspectacular life example of the real meaning of charity.
It’s easy for a freelance writer to forget that there is anywhere to be except in front of a computer. It’s easy to forget that even God rested on the seventh day — after ensuring that, on the prairies, there would always be winter sunsets glowing across snowy fields. But my parents had also modelled that way of living. Around all the work involved in running the farm and the family, they knew the value of taking time to relax and revitalize, Mom with her quiet evenings in her flower garden, Dad with his games of solitaire or an evening of bridge with a group of close friends, the two of them going out for a movie, or having friends over for coffee and conversation.
And that’s my new Lent, designed to feed my own hungry soul with enforced periods of apparent idleness, for reading, meditating, spending time on the phone with distant friends, taking time to meet someone for lunch, or simply contemplating today’s prairie winter sunset that was designed for my own west-facing living room windows.
By the way, I don’t eat the crème-filled eggs, the marshmallow bunnies and the hot cross buns until Easter Sunday. But that’s not because I’ve given them up for Lent. It’s just my way of honouring a tradition set by my very wise parents.
Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.