The memories usually hit at this time of the year. Some denominations seem to (for lack of a better term) promote Lent more than others. I read that much of this stems from leaders of the Protestant Reformation mistakenly believing that Lent was a Roman invention. That’s a shame. For the first 25 years of my life I experienced Lent in the Catholic church. They make a big deal of it and do it well. It is likely difficult for many outside of the faith to appreciate.
For better and for worse, much of the Catholic faith is about ritual and repetition and the authority of the church. Mass was truly different from everything else in life, “Set apart,” if you will. There was nothing modern or catchy about the responsorial psalms, the quiet, the half-sung doxologies, and intermittent Latin. These were all foreign yet familiar.
But for most children, the ritual aspect only goes so deep.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have not end…”
“Yeah yeah. I get it.”
Sooner or later, the meaning and mystery behind the ritual is lost. Most of it turns into a lot of waiting. For a boy with an active body and imagination, nearly every Sunday was a palatable exercise of doing time. In the name of the Lord.
Mass was consistent. Even a child can think more deeply when he knows what to expect. Sure, there were simple daydreams about sports and video games. But sometimes the relative quiet and calm provided margin for an examined life. This is meaningful, even in the juvenile form.
I stared deep into the ceiling of the church, imagining the pine knot galaxies spinning and expanding out into space. Was it possible to see the edge of the universe? Did heaven and God exist on the other side of that edge?
It took months to solve the mystery of why some people in front were clearly shorter than others in their pew while standing, but taller when they sat down. “Please stand,” shorter. “You may be seated,” taller. Then one day “poof,” I was able to visualize the geometry behind this. It seemed odd that an eternal soul would somehow exist in these three dimensions.
There was an elderly lady with a constantly circling lower jaw. I theorized as to why a Tourette’s-like “Ehh!” would emerge from her once every 45 to 70 seconds as timed on my Swatch Watch. Did she do it on purpose? Or was it more of a mistake like a burp in the voice box or the brain? I dreaded the thought that her brain was forcing her to do things that she did not want to do.
Even with the daydreaming and illegitimate distraction and trips to the bathroom between the second reading and communion, I learned things. Not just that the third communion bell meant that it was 17 to 20 minutes until I would be home playing ball or catching frogs. No, I learned things that mattered. To this day I can easily recite most of the psalms and creeds, mostly good things to know as a member of the human denomination.
Lord Jesus Christ
only son of the Father.
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sins of the world
have mercy on us.
…Lord God, grant us peace.
I imagine that to this day, the experience would be almost exactly the same.
But it wasn’t just the forced quiet time and doctrine. Another piece of this was having a model. No, things were not perfect in the family. But my father modeled many things that matter. Like going to church whether or not you feel like it, giving freely even when you’re unemployed, and sacrificially providing for your family. I witnessed my Catholic grandfather as a model of temperance, and sporadically caught glimpses of him literally on his knees praying beside his bed. I never heard either one of them say a single disparaging comment about my mother or women in general. You just don’t talk like that.
Do I wonder what the Catholic church experience would be like as an adult in my particular life and faith journey? Sure. Do I long to bring my kids to climb and play on the giant rock in the parking lot of St. Boniface? Absolutely! Do I want to reconvert? No. While I hold some differences of opinion regarding doctrinal points, harping on theological differences is no longer my primary concern. It would be selfish and unnecessary to drag the family through another major change. It would take at least five years to figure anything out. And I love my current faith family.
The Reformed tradition talks a lot about Depravity, and Lent is like a map to get personally get, truly get there. So…Am I allowed to capture the Catholic feel of Lent? Because that was a good place. It always has been special in terms of things that matter.
- Margin for processing
- Routine and contemplative meditation and prayer
- A model
—And here you have my only piece of remotely training-related advice for this essay.–
Let us be mindful of self ambition, using Lent as an opportunity to somehow get God on our side. The whole “Giving up sweets since I need to lose weight and run faster” mentality. Sure, leaning on God for self improvement is commendable. But this is not what Lent is about, and causes us to miss out on the best part.
Let us be mindful of our weaknesses and intentionally pick at our gaps. Sometimes the least marketable things are what we need most. Let us carve out margin, repent, and attempt real sacrifice, for our own good and for the good of others.
Lord, hear our prayer.