BY ELIZABETH MCKENZIE
It’s hard to take Lent seriously in the southern hemisphere.
It impinges on the most hedonistic time of the year: beautiful beach weather; salads and barbies; cool drinks; golden mornings and balmy evenings; summer uniforms - and not just for school students.
Doing something penitential about our failings and shortcomings at this time of year is a big ask.
It’s probably marginally easier to be penitential when the weather is not so good.
In the northern hemisphere, where I spent my childhood, it was already cold, wet and miserable in February and March so undertaking voluntary acts of penance was just something else to endure.
On the whole, penitential rites involved giving something up. There was an established gradation of what was to be denied. Younger children were expected to give up lollies (but allowed to save them in a lolly jar).
Pre- and early teens were required to forfeit lollies and comics (back numbers of which miraculously appeared –along with the Easter eggs – on Easter Sunday).
Older teens and young adults gave up, lollies, comics, going to ‘the pictures’ (aka the cinema), maybe even the weekend ‘hop’.
As a child, it seemed to me that adults were required to give up food – at least the most enjoyable aspects of eating and drinking. No sweet biscuits, cakes or chocolates, no milk or sugar in your tea, no desserts except maybe on a Sunday, no alcoholic beverages.
My parents, inveterate film aficionados, also gave up going to the cinema. This I think was in lieu of giving up alcohol – as they were both teetotalers, giving up alcohol didn’t count.
I think what my mother missed most was her supper. During festivals and Ordinary time, she would have perhaps two digestive biscuits half coated in chocolate (or indeed anything half or even wholly covered in chocolate could be substituted) plus a ‘nice cup of tea’ –i.e. sugared and milked.
In Lent this indulgence was replaced by what she called a ‘small collation’, consisting of two plain digestive bikkies and a glass of just-warmed milk. My mother was nothing if not diligent in observing the Lenten rites of her Church.
Nowadays it is quite easy to slither through Lent and give up nothing at all. In any event, the terminology changed in recent years, away from ‘giving up’ to ‘doing something’ – a more positive take on penitential rituals.
So one might continue to drink a glass or three of wine but pray more assiduously, and/or contribute to Vinnies or Caritas, and/or read more spiritually discerning articles on the internet rather than following Facebook or twittering mindlessly. The computer age has opened up the whole of cyberspace in which to do something penitential.
The real meaning of Lent and penitential rituals can be forgotten in the pursuit of feeling virtuous, rather than becoming virtuous.
Becoming virtuous involves making a considered decision to do so. A decision to give up something, however trivial, can prod me into acknowledging that a much tougher decision to ‘give up’ a spiritually draining habit or routine is sorely needed.
Making a decision to do something good – however minimal – could remind me that there are areas in my spiritual life where I need to be much more proactive in the pursuit of holiness.
A jar of lollies may become a symbol of a much deeper transformation, from being a sinner to becoming a saint. Properly understood, Lent (to misquote GK Chesterton) is not so much an inconvenience to be endured as a challenge to explore the adventure of holiness.
Elizabeth McKenzie is a Melbourne writer.
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