Sunday, Feb. 22, 2004: Our family is seated around the dining room table, discussing which sacrifices we’ll make during the upcoming Lenten season.
My husband will give up beer, and I will forgo my daily red wine (Burgundy, to be precise). Nineteen-year-old Grace, our eldest, will go cold turkey on the computer, and Ben will give up video games.
Clare has resolved to do some spiritual reading every day, and Leo will abstain from sweets. Rose will limit movie watching to religious films, Vincent has promised swifter and more cheerful obedience, Dominic will recite an extra Rosary daily, and Helen will “be nicer.”
One-year-old Gerard, a breast-feeding baby with around-the-clock appetite, will give up sleep between the hours of 2 and 4am. I will be Gerard’s ancillary penitent.
Tuesday, March 2, 2004: Vincent is unhappy because Rose will not watch The Incredibles with him since the film does not meet her strict standards for a religious movie.
Grace, having relinquished usage of the computer’s word-processing program, wants the due date for her history paper to be extended by 40 days. Leo is miffed because Clare filched his cookie.
Family Rosary is being delayed while Dominic finishes reciting his private Rosary. Loss of sleep, coupled with the inability to indulge in a calming glass of wine, has me on edge.
I resolve to find a more practical way for our family to observe Lent the following year, and in so doing, I learn a few useful things.
First, I discover that, although the rules of fasting and abstinence varied, many Christians from the sixth century right down through the Middle Ages followed the decree of Pope St. Gregory (540-604): “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”
Second, I find that Canon 1249 of the Code of Canon Law states that “All Christ’s faithful are obliged … each in his or her own way, to do penance,” but also that it is good to “be joined together in a certain common practice of penance.”
Aha! We would choose a Lenten penance that we could practice together as a family. Here was a way to prevent penitential excesses (“Honey, it’s nice to squeeze the baby affectionately, but squeezing him repeatedly doesn’t make you extra nice; it only makes him spit up”) and penitential conflicts (“I was going to surprise you by doing the grocery shopping, but Ben took the car to go to Stations, so I couldn’t get to the store, and by the way, I finished the milk.”).
There’d be no more tests of Mom’s sleep-deprived memory (“Tell me again: Which one of you doesn’t get served dessert?”) or conundrums requiring Solomon’s wisdom (“I know I gave up the computer, but I didn’t give up video games, so if there’s a video game that’s on the computer, can I play it?”).
As a practicable way to get all the members of our family on the same page, we decide to abstain from meat throughout the Lenten season, while not restricting our consumption of dairy products.
Shrove Tuesday 2010: Our family is anticipating another in a series of meatless Lents. Not with long faces, but with longing for its many benefits, both spiritual and temporal. We’ve found that Lenten abstinence:
— calls to mind the sacrificial spirit of the season almost as many times as we sit down to enjoy a meal.
— reminds us, in a small way, of the hardships endured by fasting Christians in earlier times, when foods were less accessible and the diet less diverse.
— necessitates more conscientious meal planning.
— engages the whole family in working up appealing menus.
— can reduce grocery bills.
— increases appreciation for things that are taken for granted outside of the Lenten season.
For those who are new to meatless cooking, there are excellent resources available. Some of my favorites are The Lenten Kitchen by Barbara Benjamin, Whole Foods for the Whole Family by Roberta Johnson, A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz and Twelve Months of Monastery Soups by Victor D’Avila-Latourrette.
Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.