Now that our country is in the throes of constantly reminding itself how Puritanical it is, it seems that all things Christianity-based are News, so even if I wanted to remain unaware of the arrival of Lent, I could not. I am a Recovering Catholic, so Lent is still a Presence in my life, and while I do not traditionally observe it, I use it as a catalyst for reflection and renewed resolution. This lax attitude would have dismayed the nuns at St. John the Baptist's back when I went to catechism classes, but I blame my mother, St. Patsy, who Longtime Readers have met here before.
My mother, who was born and raised a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism in order to marry my father in a scandalous liaison more than sixty years ago. She immediately became a pariah in her own family and a better Catholic than my father, who sporadically attended mass, if at all, for the rest of his life. To this day, however, I have no idea if her Catholic Rules are based in The Church, Vatican II, or simply a combination of Maternal Common Sense And Frustration. Under her spiritual tutelage, all four of us siblings learned the following tenets of Family Catholicism in the Church of St. Patsy:
1. You could still take communion if you didn't eat 15 minutes before mass.
2. On Sunday, you could have what you gave up for Lent.
3. A headband counted as a head covering for girls at mass.
4. Going to the Lutheran church with Grandma counted as going to mass.
5. It was okay if you missed confession; you could still take communion. What, did you murder someone?
6. If you were sick, Lent didn't count. You're sick!
7. If your birthday was during Lent, Lent didn't count. It's your birthday!
As you can probably imagine, these rules were vastly different than Sister Marguerite's rules for Lent. Sister Marguerite was a tough old nun of choking wimple, voluminous black skirts, and in spite of her impossibly tiny stature, intimidating mien. Every Monday from four to five in the afternoon, we Public School Children trudged into St. John's classrooms to be instructed in religious doctrine. Sister Marguerite started every session by telling us that our parents did not love us enough to make the Ultimate Sacrifice by giving us a Catholic Education, so she had to save us. Here are Sister Marguerite's Rules For Lent:
1. We cannot love Jesus as much as He loves us.
2. No matter what we may sacrifice, it is Nothing compared to His. He gave His LIFE!
3. We must do more. And then even more. Is that all we are doing? There must be more.
4. Come now. Think of our sins. How terrible we are! We will go to confession as a group each week during Lent.
5. We must tell our parents that we want to go to Catholic school.
6. No eating after midnight on Saturday before mass and until the communion wafer is in our mouths. Not even a breath mint or aspirin.
7. Absolutely no meat during Lent. Ever.
8. Only mass in the Catholic church counts as mass. Observe all high holy days, which also do not count as attendance at mass.
Is it any wonder I had a debilitating headache each and every Monday? I could not wait to get home to my mother, who was cooking one of her wonderful, comforting dinners. I would walk in the side door and into a steamy kitchen, smell mashed potatoes and pan gravy and see my mother in her apron at the stove. I don't remember ever telling her a blessed thing that happened in catechism, but I do remember telling her the day I made my confirmation that I was never going back.
And I didn't. To her credit, she didn't even try and make me. My father didn't even weigh in on the matter. My religious life was complete, my basic sacraments accomplished, and I was free to coast home on Mondays. Free!
But those of you who are In The Club know that Catholicism is the original Gift That Keeps On Giving. Hell, there's even a teeshirt for us. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, we all suffer (now and then) some pangs of residual guilt. The whole religion is built on it. It and its twin, Shame. Just look at Sister Marguerite's diatribe--and that was primarily for Lent! She had quite a repertoire of standards at the ready for all occasions, be it Lent, Easter, Christmas, or anything that might arise, such as tardiness, incorrectly defining Grace...you name it, she could reduce any elementary school kid to a blushing, teary-eyed bag of guts with ease.
I don't feel guilty for leaving the church. Not one bit. That's not what I mean. What I mean is that, like the Puritanism of colonial times, living the code of a religion that proscriptive, that harsh, that strict...well, it's defeating. It makes you feel as if you can never truly live in its image, never meet its demands. You are destined for failure. That, of course, was the eventual fate of the Puritan church in America. And while the Catholic church is enduring, it goes without saying that it is gasping for breath.
Of the four of St. Patsy's children, two of us have left Catholicism. The remaining two are, shall we say, extremely liberal Catholics. Just like St. Patsy herself. She would laugh and be dismissive were I to call her a radical, if I were to tell her she was ahead of her time, in the avant garde of the new Catholicism. So maybe I will tell her, just to hear her laugh.