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Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Little Black Books
In many (all?) Catholic churches, "Little Black Books" were distributed after Mass the past few weeks. These "Little Black Books" are just that: small, non-descript volumes without a title on the cover that can tuck easily into a purse or schoolbag. They are filled with six-minute meditations for Lent, which officially starts with the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, which is tomorrow. Each meditation begins with a historical or factual tidbit relating to the day -- today, for example, is a description of the origins of the phrase mardi gras -- and is followed by a short reading to inspire meditation. All of the meditations this year are based on the Gospel of Luke and his recounting of the Passion of Christ. The "Little Black Book" is designed as an aid for Catholics as they reflect on the Lenten season, which has always been a bit difficult for me to understand since it is sometimes referred to as a "joyous" season when really there's nothing outwardly joyful about it.
Lent and Easter have always been my favorite parts of the Church year because I really feel like I can be spiritually "active" during this time in a way that is meaningful and individual. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas and the other long preparation time in the Church year, is usually lost on me because it's difficult to separate the hype of a commercialized Christmas from the spiritual "waiting" for the birth of Christ. To me, Advent should be a calm, reflective time of longing and preparation, but it never is -- it's always about last-minute shopping, last-minute grading, last-minute everything else. And because there are usually holiday parties well in advance of Christmas Day, no one really "waits" during Advent at all -- "Christmas" is celebrated on whatever day your employer decides to throw the holiday party, or whenever all of your friends can manage a day together. I like Lent because it is slow and because it isn't as full of last-minute preparations. You can't spiritually prepare yourself for the fullness of Lent and the promise of Easter at the last minute: it takes time, and that's what we have, starting tomorrow.
I went to a Catholic elementary school, and I remember trying hard to think of what I would "give up" for Lent each year. We had to write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a shoebox in front of our classroom, and the teacher would read through our Lenten promises and talk with each of us about them. I usually gave up dessert or some food item I liked. I remember one year I gave up pudding -- I adore pudding and mushy desserts in general -- and it was one of the most difficult Lenten promises I ever made. I remember that my sister, who didn't even really like pudding, would often eat it in front of me to test my resolve. I also remember that, on Easter Sunday, Mom made me a huge bowl of pudding as a treat and it tasted better than ever. I didn't really make a connection back then between my pudding-deprivation and the resurrection of Christ, but I did feel like I'd actually done something for Lent.
As I grew older, I began to feel that "giving something up" for Lent wasn't that meaningful. Instead, I tried to "give something back" during Lent, like offering to help people more often, donating my time, or being a nicer person. These were good ideas, in theory, but they were too easy to do: what qualified as helping people "more often" or being "nicer?" It was too easy to say that I'd fulfilled my Lenten promises when, really, I was just being myself in a more conscious way. After all, I'm a pretty nice person already and I like to help people, so doing that for Lent was no big stretch. I didn't feel like I'd grown spiritually at all during those Lenten seasons, and Easter simply came for me as a matter of course those years.
On the first page of the "Little Black Book," you're supposed to "sketch some possible Lenten plans." I did that, trying to think of something "lofty" and "eye-opening" and "life changing." But nothing was coming to me, and a blank page stared back at me. Then I read yesterday's meditation: "Lent is not a pietistic pie-in-the-sky time. It's realistic down-to-earth time. It's about ashes and the cross. It's about money, food, and how we spend our time. It's about sin and sorrow. It's about life and death." So, this Lent I've decided to return to my Lenten roots and make this Lent a time of cutting back on indulgences: no eating between meals, no dessert. You all know that I love food -- I love to prepare it, I love to think and write about it, I love to shop for it, and I love to eat it. Because I cook a lot and bake with ST, there is no shortage of good things to eat in this house at any given time, and it's always easy to sneak downstairs and snatch something out of the cake safe or the cookie box. Many days when I'm working from home I skip lunch just so I can have a treat -- maybe a cupcake or a cookie with hot chocolate -- and that is something I really enjoy doing (I mean, really, why eat a tuna sandwich when a homemade black-bottomed cupcake is staring you in the face?). It will be hard for me to break out of this pleasant habit -- I know I will miss it, I know that my stomach will tell me that it's time for a snack in that awkward hours between breakfast and lunch. But I think denying myself some of these "usual" treats will help me make a good Lent.
According again to the "Little Black Book," Lent is all about making us a little sore and raw inside, about making us feel deprived. But this deprivation is for a purpose, and that is to make us more aware of our lives -- more awake to the blessings of God and the sacrifices of Christ. As simple and silly as it sounds, my "Christ in a cupcake" plan is one that I think will be useful to me spiritually: it will make me think about my life and think about what I have and be grateful for it. A real hunger pang or a real sweet tooth craving is a reminder of my physicality and my fleeting time on this earth -- these are wake-up calls, urging me to think beyond my own, flat life to the wonders that await me here and beyond.