WHEN I was a child, I loved Marguerite Henry books, particularly “King of the Wind,’’ which tells the story of the Moroccan horse that begat the Thoroughbred line. Early in the book, a mare collapses and dies after foaling because she was weakened from the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast.
Say what you want about ancient fundamentalist Muslims, but they were even tougher than a Tiger Mom when it came to personal discipline. Not so the modern-day Catholic. This week, the church begins the season of Lent, ostensibly a time of somber reflection and restraint, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone forcing their pets to fast.
Or, for that matter, their kids. The proscribed Lenten fast is for ages 18 to 59; Rome has not yet heard that 60 is the new 40. You call it Lent; I call it Ramadan Light. We Catholics, you see, have devised all these loopholes for this time of ascesis and penance. We can’t eat meat on Friday, but, of course, “fish’’ is not “meat’’ no matter what the USDA food pyramid says, so the sale of McDonald’s filet-of-fish sandwiches remains brisk. Personally, I am skeptical of any exercise in self-control that permits a double-cheese pizza, but I’m cranky like that when deprived of bacon.
Furthermore, and this is something I only learned last year, the six weeks of Lent do not include the Sundays therein. Sunday being the day Christ rose from the dead, it’s a feast day, and therefore, not part of the Lenten observance. Imagine that. All these years, when I’ve given up chocolate or ice cream, all along I could have been stuffing myself with Hershey’s kisses each Sunday. (I will not be sharing this new knowledge with my kids, just like my mother did not tell me. I’m old school: You give up something, you give it up from Ash Wednesday through Easter.)
Last November, the church returned to a more traditional language in the Mass, discarding some of the changes the Second Vatican Council made to the ancient liturgy and causing mass stammering on Sunday mornings throughout Advent. Significantly, however, the Church did not return to the pre-Vatican II practices of Lent, which were considerably sterner before this loosening of the theological belt in the 1960s.
Fifty years ago, Catholics restricted their food intake (they called it a partial fast) every day during Lent, except for Fridays, Saturdays, and Ash Wednesday, when a full fast was observed. Rome must think today’s Catholics would not stand for that and would, if so compelled, defect to the Episcopal Church en masse.
Indeed, in many parishes, you will find smiling priests suggesting that Lent should not be about giving up things, but doing things for others. This is a lovely idea, but not at the cost of privation, an old-fashioned practice that is desperately needed in American society today yet is provided only by the Weight Watchers organization and Islam. As a people, we’re not very good at giving things up, which could explain why Twinkies still exist and 1 out of every 3 Americans is obese.
But the point of Lent is not to lose weight but to shed self-obsession; as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, to “acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.’’ Such efforts require unpleasantness — figuratively, the occasional horse may die — as well as a necessary gloom of spirit which the contemporary American is loath to assume because we’re all too busy having a nice day.
Once, someone wished me a happy Good Friday. I’m not sure if she, in her cheeriness, noticed my wince.
As for me, I wish you all a dolorous Lent.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.