Back when I was in grade school, or, not to put too fine a point on it, still self-identifying as Catholic, I would give things up for Lent. This idea of self-sacrifice during the period of Lent was ingrained in me, and also in most of my fellow mini-Catholics. Most years I gave up sweets for Lent (cake, cookies, or candy); other times, soda or sex. (Ha! Just seeing if you were paying attention—sometimes I really did give up soda.) During the hip 70s, it was suggested by some of our CCD teachers that Lenten sacrifices needn’t be so focused on the negative— i.e., the “giving things up for Lent” model—but rather on doing something positive. So one year, along with another plenary indulgence-seeking friend, I went to morning mass every day until Easter. Emphasis on only once—I never attempted this “positive” approach again, preferring to stay with more tried-and-true, sugar-free expressions of Lenten devotion.
I ask myself now, do I still have the religious fervor I had then? Although looking back, I’m not sure how much it had to do with “religious fervor,” but rather a desire to test my will power, with maybe just a pinch of good old Catholic fear and loathing thrown in. I wonder, could I—or, more to the point, would I—want to do something that difficult now? For instance, could I give up all alcoholic beverages—including pinot grigio—for forty days? I am not so sure. But back then I could have. (Let’s not quibble over whether I was of legal age to drink, or whether I even liked the taste of wine back then. Because I wasn’t and I didn’t.) The point is, I liked the challenge.
A better way of explaining it is this: I was a Shiite Catholic and Lent was my Ramadan. The sheer will power of Catholics during Lent is not to be trifled with. Basically, don’t mess with Catholics during the Lenten season is the message I am sending. We get everything out of our system during Mardi Gras, right before gloomy Ash Wednesday comes around to harsh your mellow and remind you of your inevitable return from whence you came, and let’s face it, from the looks of what is smeared on your forehead, it might have been an ashtray. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras you know what I’m talking about. You don’t even have the energy to think about sinning after that huge orgy of drunken hedonism and the bartering of your souls (or breasts?) for plastic beads. By Ash Wednesday, you are are nursing a giant hangover—not to mention cleaning up all that blood and broken glass.
Of course, it was a given that if you gave up something for Lent you could cheat on Sundays. (But not about the attending-mass-every-day-thing; it was pretty much expected that you be in church on Sundays too, which kind of ruined it for me.) Sundays were like your wild card, your Get-Out-of-Jail Free card. You could have your damn candy on Sundays.
But what about eating meat on Fridays in Lent? I remember years in which St. Patrick’s Day—a high holy day in the Catholic religion if ever there was one (not so much in Rome)—fell on a Friday during Lent. What is the rule regarding this? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that: the Pope just gave us a special dispensation to eat meat that day. Done. Or maybe it was our diocesan bishop. Who was Irish of course. All bishops are. And a rummy too. And most likely fat. Don’t get me started on the rest of it. So I’m pretty sure it was the Irish bishop who gave the dispensation. Somehow I don’t think an Italian pope (interesting note: for a long while popes used to be made in Italy only, but then they were outsourced to other European countries) sitting up there on his throne over in the Vatican, really gave a Ratzingers’s ass about what Irish Catholics did when it came to eating meat on their patron saint’s feast day which sometimes fell on a Friday in Lent.
So, to recap: Even though the Catholic Playbook (when strictly adhering to the Marquess of Queensbury rules) says you must abstain from eating meat on Fridays in Lent, it was perfectly acceptable to have your corned beef and cabbage if St. Patty’s day fell, inconveniently, on a Friday during Lent. (To clarify: cabbage–NOT a type of meat; more of a gassy garnish that must accompany the corned beef.) This exception made perfect sense. After all, how in the world were those legions of ultra-devout Irish-Catholics supposed to show their devotion the the patron saint of Ireland, if they couldn’t partake in the perfect communion of corned beef and beer (assuming they weren’t stupid enough to give beer up for Lent, too)? And if the Pope says it’s kosher to have your corned beef and eat it too, then, by God, it’s kosher. Because he’s the Pope, right? Or the bishop. Whatever. I began to notice there were a lot of loopholes in this religion.
Now I sometimes go to a Protestant church. A reformed Protestant church. And everything is groovy. They don’t appear to have any hard and fast rules to break. They don’t even distinguish between mortal and venial sins! And I spent a lot of time sweating over that distinction in my eight years of CCD classes. There is no such thing as confession to slowly crush my soul. Full disclosure: I rarely availed myself of this activity in my post-CCD life. (Wait, did I just make a confession here? I’ll be damned. No, I really mean that. I am probably damned.) So my present dilemma is that it’s difficult to respect a religion that doesn’t make you feel fearful and guilty most of the time. My decades of Catholic-instilled angst tell me this new religion that I’m trying out is too easy and I’m not fooling anyone.
I have come to the sad realization that I am probably going to hell in two religions now. In fact, I am practically sprinting there. But with every Christopher Hitchens book I read, I worry about it less and less.
Let’s have some candy!