Praying for perspective: Remembering the reason for the season

Making sure our Lenten sacrifices glorify God, not us, no matter how young or old we are

By George Valadie

The arrival of Ash Wednesday on March 1 means Lent is upon us and Easter soon will be here. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I think Lent is harder than it used to be.

In my younger days, I was pretty sure what the Church wanted of a little lad like me throughout these 40 days — to give up something, anything. And if I was successful, God would be proud, and grace would be mine.

It seemed easier then to put my eye on the target, but I feel like the target has moved. I can recall with great clarity my boyhood Lenten sacrifices and I can remember the age-old standards I tried to survive without — some years it was Coke, or ice cream or Oreos, but most years involved a self-imposed restriction on candy.

Or, if I were feeling particularly Jesus-like, I’d take a shot at all sweets. As I slogged through one day after another, I was as proud of me as God was — sure I was holy, going on priesthood.

But with a little maturity and reflection, I had to laugh at my Lenten labors. Our family never had the money to afford much of those sorts of extras anyway. Still, Mom probably loved Lent and the six-week stretch when we quit asking.

Though we survived without in sixth grade, we surely failed to follow Our Lord’s directive to be humble in our sacrifices, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you.” If anything, a bunch of 11-year-olds were more likely to announce our saintliness with marching-band fanfare. “I’m giving up X, what are you giving up?” I don’t know how you won, but it always seemed like a contest.

We attended daily Mass throughout grade school, so I can’t say I was all that excited to go to one more on Sunday mornings, except during Lent, because it was on those Sundays that there was a trade-off to be had.

Soon after the final blessing, we kids were running to the car, knowing Mom had agreed to take us for junk food where we could celebrate our Monday through Saturday goodness, ever so sure that our Hershey-less week was exactly what the Lord’s 40 days in the desert must have felt like. (I’m not sure that even today I have a full understanding of the theology behind “free Sundays,” but we sure loved it then.)

All in all, we likely devoured more sweets on the six Sundays of Lent than during the rest of the year.

We were young then, and our bodies knew little of bad habits. Today, I don’t know if I’m dependent on Diet Coke, but living without it would be awfully tough (maybe more emotional than physical, but addictive all the same).

One recent Lent, I pondered giving up fat grams of all sorts, but Father’s homily rained all over that parade (“That would be good for you, not for God. Getting slim is all about you. What can you do that’s all about him?”) OK, good point, but I hate being grown-up sometimes.

One Church-mandated Lenten sacrifice that remains is Friday abstinence from meat. And my memory can’t help but hearken back to the lady who tried her very best to be a good Catholic mom 52 Fridays a year — egg salad or fish sticks, creamed tuna or salmon croquettes, though I still won’t eat her classic mixture of scrambled eggs and French fries.

Now eating that was a real sacrifice.

And let’s not forget that memorable Friday of my youth when I was anything but what God hoped I might be.

My poor single-parent mom, who worked every bit of 60 hours a week before she came home to her four kids, had forgotten.

She just forgot. So, after a long week, she plopped the burgers on the stove. I, all of 12 or so, and the snippy, self-appointed guardian of the family faith, began to object, and then whine before eventually moving on to full-blown jerk.

With a snotty, over-the-top, holier-than-thou attitude, I had the audacity to yell at her, “It will be your fault! You will be the reason we go to hell! I hope you’re happy!”

Why she didn’t slap me, I’ll never know. I’ll have to admit, our family still follows the letter of that Lenten law, but I’m not sure we’re following the spirit of it. Friday night tuna has been replaced with Captain D’s, while grilled-cheese sandwiches have given way to Bonefish.

No real sacrifice there, and I know it.

There’s not a lot of spiritual growth in eating out; great food, but not much grace — or growth.

And to make matters worse, I keep reading that instead of “giving up more,” we should “take on more.” There are aching people and unsolved problems — all that need our attention. And as it should, the Church is encouraging each of us to ease their pain and solve their problems — do a little more, be a little more.

In my heart, I know what the season of Lent should be about. But while Father delivers his Sunday homily, I’ve been known to daydream about my Monday schedule. “If you could just see what my day is like! I just don’t have any extra time to give them. Can’t I just give up some chocolate?”

Maybe it’s not Lent that’s getting harder, but doing it well might be.

Dear God — Our 40 days will never be anything like yours. Celebration waits at our finish line, crucifixion awaited yours. Thank you for the ultimate sacrifice. Amen.

George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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