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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

March 29, 2009

A good lent

When I was in elementary school, Lent was always about giving up something.

We would go to Mass during evening religious ed classes on Ash Wednesday, discussing our plans for Lenten sacrifice on the way down the stairs to the church, and again on our way back to the classroom.

There were a handful of usual sacrifices: candy (or sometimes just chocolate), soda, gum. One year I gave up TV — one day a week. I’m pretty sure I picked a day that didn’t have any shows that I liked.

I still give things up for Lent, and I tend to look towards food for ideas, so it shouldn’t surprise me that Frank did the same this year. But instead of limiting himself to, say, French fries, he decided to give up all fast food.

It seemed like a good idea on Ash Wednesday, but it hasn’t always been easy. There are days when we’re just trying to get from Point A to Point B, and it would be far easier to stop at McDonald’s or Burger King than make time to go home and fix a meal, even if it’s just heating up leftovers.

But it’s been good for the rest of us, too, because with Frank not eating fast food, the rest of us have not been eating much of it either. It kind of takes me back to when the kids were small and we were going to be close-to-perfect parents who would never endanger their health by letting them eat burgers and fries. That phase didn’t last long.

We also work towards adding more prayer into our days and keep a Rice Bowl bank on the kitchen counter to collect change; maybe we should put in what we would have spent on those fast-food meals that didn’t happen.

None of us eat meat on Fridays during Lent, even though the kids are not required to abstain from meat.

The hard part, for me, is that so much of what we do during Lent seems like it is meant to be difficult and bleak and just not a lot of fun. The prevailing image is the desert; the prevailing color, in my mind at least, is gray.

But Lent happens in the spring, when the grass is turning green and the flowers start to bloom: first snowdrops and crocuses, then tulips and daffodils. There are days when the water in Lake Michigan is as gray and forbidding as the steel that was milled on the South Shore, days when it is clear and almost colorless and days when its startling bright blue reflects the promise of clear summer days.

Lent is a time for reflection and for penance, of course, but it is also a journey toward rebirth, toward the most magnificent feast in the calendar, and the rest of God’s creation seems to know it.

Sometimes we forget that all the hard stuff — the giving up of favorite foods, the giving of money to the poor and the giving of time to prayer — is more than just a spiritual marathon. It really is a time of preparation, like baseball players have in spring training. It’s an opportunity to loosen up the spiritual muscles, put aside the habits that we’ve cocooned ourselves in and step out of our comfort zones — becoming vulnerable again.

And if that means staying out of Wendy’s for a few weeks, so be it.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at [email protected].