My roommate routinely asks me this question, knowing that I’ll occasionally say yes. I happen to appreciate the question (some people wouldn’t), and have let her know that I want her to keep asking it. So, she does. If she didn’t, I doubt I’d get to confession at all.
This time, I said yes. When we arrived at the church, where confession is still held outdoors, we were both surprised to see a dozen people waiting ahead of us. When we found a bench to sit down to wait, I whispered to my friend that the uptick in penitents was probably because Ash Wednesday was the following Wednesday.
“What?!” she whisper-exclaimed and pulled out her phone to confirm. She sighed. “It always sneaks up on me.”
And she’s the observant one of the pair of us.
When confession time came, I was tense. Despite knowing that my bishop has given permission for individuals to assess their readiness to return to observing the Sunday and holy day Mass obligation, I still get scrupulous about the fact that I no longer go to Mass. This time, I was determined not to confess as sin what I knew wasn’t a sin in my situation. Much to my relief, I managed to get through confession without once again compulsively confessing that I hadn’t been to Mass in months.
By Ash Wednesday, I was newly shriven and ready for Lent. Now that I once again have a job, I’ve been packing lunch for work again. But even though I had lunch with me that day, I realized I still had money on the scannable “market card” I’d bought at the workplace food stand weeks ago. For some reason, the food stand’s scanner and I don’t get along, leading to great frustration on limited break time. But I decided to try again.
I grabbed a sandwich and chips, and grimly input the scan codes and my card. Much to my surprise, everything seemed to go smoothly. I sat down to open my sandwich, feeling smug. Then I looked again at my food, remembered, and groaned. I had a mac ‘n cheese cup and a tuna salad packet in my bag, but I’d just bought a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich. After all I’d gone through, I sure as hell wasn’t throwing away my sandwich.
Which is why I ended up eating ham on Ash Wednesday.
The other day, a friend posted on social media that his family decided to dedicate their Sunday-night Family Movie Night during Lent to the seven deadly sins (for an audience aged 12–80). For their first selection, they’d chosen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for greed. He wanted suggestions for subsequent nights. I loved the question, dug out my professional apologist cap, and drafted a list for him.
- Pride: Air Force One (also relevant to current events)
- Envy: All About Eve
- Wrath: The Wizard of Oz
- Gluttony: Chocolat
- Lust: Casablanca
- Sloth: The Help
- Greed: Die Hard (would have been my choice)
I invited my Facebook friends to offer their suggestions. Several stepped up and offered great suggestions. (My favorite suggestions were Babette’s Feast for pride, The Ox-Bow Incident for wrath, and The Princess and the Frog for sloth. If I had a second pick for wrath, it would be the 2010 version of True Grit, with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.)
Nonetheless, I was irritated when discussion in the combox turned to critiquing my choice of Casablanca for lust. How dare I suggest that Rick and Ilsa’s romance was anything less than True Love?! I wrote:
Rick and Ilsa’s relationship was pretty much about lust at its heart, which is one reason why (I think) Rick tells Ilsa at the end she’d eventually regret staying with him instead of leaving with her husband. … Lust isn’t always shallow. It imitates the real thing, and sometimes it’s a damn fine imitation (“damn” used in the theological sense). One reason why it’s so difficult for people to leave objectively immoral relationships is precisely because sincere emotions are involved. They really do think they’re “in love.”
In the case of Casablanca, Rick’s heroism is in growing beyond his self-interest (which he prefers to think of as neutrality) and becoming capable of sacrifice for a greater good. He learns the meaning of love. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the movie ends with him finding a healthy form of love in “a beautiful friendship.”
I had to chuckle though when one friend commented that Rick and Ilsa’s relationship wasn’t lust but merely failed love, “selfish and all-consuming.” Gee, I wondered, if only there was a shorthand, catch-all word that could be used to define selfish, all-consuming, failed love.
We’ll be starting the first week of Lent this Sunday, and I have no plans for how my Lent goes from here. I’ve been to confession and managed to beat back scruples, so I’ll take that as a win. I washed out on observing the abstinence discipline on Ash Wednesday, so no points on that one. And I had fun suggesting movies to a friend, and arguing over one of the choices.
I remember when Lent had a far greater hold on my imagination.
My very first Lent as a Catholic, I plotted out an intricate strategy of prayer, self-denial, and church attendance that had me staggering into Easter not feeling the least bit of joy at the Lord’s Resurrection. All I wanted was to stuff myself with chocolate and mainline caffeine through Pentecost.
In the decades since, I found myself dialing back on the “plans” for Lent, and mostly just let it happen as it happened. Even when I was still a regular attendant at Sunday Mass, I didn’t think too far ahead about what I wanted to “do” for Lent. I stopped making resolutions to give up sweets and soda after that first failed experiment. All it did was create a craving that had me over-indulging later. Figuring out the fast and abstinence requirements became something I’d do on the fly. If I remembered, fine. If not, I either confessed later or sent up a quick prayer of regret and a promise to try to remember the next week.
I’m not a professional apologist now, but if I were advising Catholics on how to go through Lent, that would be my advice now. Do the best you can, take it from week to week, and try again next time if you don’t succeed this time. Go easy on yourself, and trust in God’s mercy.
Oh, and watch Casablanca again, and ask yourself if the love story is Rick and Ilsa’s relationship … or perhaps Rick’s discovery that true love means sacrifice of oneself for a greater good.
(Image: Cross and crusts of bread, Pixabay.)