Happy Ash Wednesday!
For those from non-liturgical backgrounds, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days leading up to Easter (Sundays don’t count because they’re seen as mini-Easters). It may be a misnomer to say “Happy Ash Wednesday” in light of how the main theme of Ash Wednesday is remembering “From dust you came and to dust you will return” as a priest puts ashes on you’re forehead in the shape of a cross. But I grew up in a Presbyterian church, so I’m still not really with it. All we did for Lent was “The One Great Hour of Sharing,” where we kids got a plastic box, often in the shape of a loaf of bread, and were asked to put coins in it for hungry children. Yes, the Presbyterians took 40 days and condensed it to one great hour.
When I started attending Episcopal churches, I learned that Lent was a much bigger deal—that fasting and adding spiritual exercises was recommended. There was a lot of freedom over what to fast from—dessert, TV, alcohol, even swearing. But because I was a Presbyterian used to mortifying myself for an hour, not 40 days, I resisted fasting for many years.
When I finally decided to give Lenten fast a real try, I gave up dessert. My goal was to pray “Jesus, let me desire you more than I desire this brownie, cookie, scoop of ice cream, etc.”
I have never prayed so much in my life! I found myself saying that little prayer about 20 times a day if not more. The biggest test came the night colleagues hosted us for dinner. Rich is known for his desserts, and he announced right after dinner that he had baked a flourless chocolate cake in our honor.
The spiritual struggle that went through me in that moment must be something Dante describes in The Inferno. Scott looked at me, wondering what I would do. I finally blurted out, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t have any.”
Rich quickly understood and said, “Well we have peppermint ice cream, you can have that instead.”
In a strangled voice, I had to say, “No, ice cream is dessert too.”
Rich said, “Dessert? I assumed you just gave up chocolate—now dessert, that’s going overboard.”
Scott said, “I have never seen this much self discipline in this woman before.”
Then they all proceeded to enjoy Rich’s luscious flourless chocolate cake while I looked on. It probably won’t surprise anyone that I baked my own flourless chocolate cake for Easter to finally break the fast.
Since then, over the years I’ve given up:
· listening to NPR while driving (with the goal that I’d pay attention to my children instead of blocking them out)
· reading novels (with the goal that I’d read spiritual books and pray, but instead found myself reading newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes with an addict’s frenzy)
· opening my computer while kids are home (with the goal that I’d spend quality time with them instead of working)
· dessert multiple times
Several years ago, I somehow forgot to give anything up, but then regretted it, because Easter just didn’t feel as joyful.
This year, our girls have decided to fast for the first time ever, and are giving up chocolate. I had to argue with one of them, who wanted to literally fast from food regularly. But she’s a growing girl with typical teenage body image issues, and we’re not going to mix up the spiritual discipline with weight loss desires/bulimia/anorexia issues.
For that very reason, I’m not giving up anything food or drink oriented. Because I already determined in early March to lose some weight by my birthday at the end of April, I don’t want to suffer from mixed motives and my spiritual director agreed. So I’ve spent the past week wondering what I should do for Lent. This morning, I finally decided.
I’m giving up criticism.
Bua Ha ha ha ha. . .
This feels like the most impossible fast I’ve ever chosen. After all, the Chinese motto is “Spare the scolding, spoil the child.”
I made my decision during spinning class this morning and solidified it on the way home, knowing my commitment would be sorely challenged the moment I walked in the door and observed at what level my son had achieved getting ready for school. To my shock and delight, although he greeted me in pajamas, he claimed he had already done everything on the list (other than getting dressed) including his piano practice and 30 minutes of reading. Wow!
All continued well. When he walked in on me in the bathroom without knocking, I didn’t rant and then I politely asked him to shut the door on the way out. While I was in the shower, he yelled that he forgot he had to go to drum practice early today, and I sweetly yelled back, “Have a great day! See you after school!”
But the minute I turned off the water, I heard incessant doorbell ringing. All 3 of our kids have the bad habit of ringing the doorbell repeatedly when they want to come in the house, even though all 3 of them have their own keys. Literally, there are times when I ask why they didn’t use their keys and they respond that it was too much trouble to dig them out of the backpack.
Dripping, wrapping myself in a towel, I made my way downstairs to the side door, steeling myself for what to say when I opened the door and 24 degree wind blasted onto my still-wet skin.
I opened the door.
“I locked myself out and forgot my music stand,” he shouted.
“Where are your keys?”
“I don’t know! Sorry! But I need my music stand.”
“I really don’t appreciate this,” was the best I could muster.
So it’s a Lenten experiment. I made it through 30 minutes of life with child and I didn’t say all the things I was tempted to say as I stood shivering and wet in our cold hallway clad only in a towel. As some of you have noticed, a daughter likes to add comments to my blog entries, so I’m sure she’ll fill you in on how I’m doing.
Lord have mercy. . .
(And to tempt those giving up dessert, here’s my favorite flourless chocolate cake recipe from Bon Appetit)
Chocolate Almond Souffle Torte
1 cup (about 5 ounces) whole almonds, toasted, cooled
4 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
1 cup chilled whipping cream
2 tablespoons amaretto or 1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup almond slices, toasted
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Shake out excess flour. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper; butter paper.
Combine 1/2 cup whole almonds and 2 tablespoons sugar in processor. Using on/off turns, grind nuts finely. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Combine remaining 1/2 cup whole almonds and vegetable oil in processor. Process until mixture is thick and pasty (consistency will be similar to that of peanut butter), scraping bowl frequently, about 3 minutes.
Stir butter and 1/2 cup whipping cream in heavy large saucepan over medium heat until butter melts and mixture simmers. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and whisk until smooth. Stir in both almond mixtures. Cool slightly.
Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1/3 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Beat egg yolks in another large bowl until very pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Gradually beat chocolate mixture into egg yolks. Fold in egg whites in 3 additions.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake cake until sides crack and puff and tester inserted into center comes out with moist batter attached, about 35 minutes. Transfer cake to rack. Cool cake to room temperature, about 2 hours (center will fall slightly as cake cools.) (Can be prepared 4 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Beat chilled cream, amaretto and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in large bowl until soft peaks form.
Run small sharp knife around pan sides to loosen cake. Release pan sides. Dust cake with powdered sugar. Sprinkle toasted almond slices around top edge of cake. Serve chilled or at room temperature with whipped cream.