Today, my lovely friend Leah Thompson, college peer and just rockstar human being, tells a story about Lent as a child, and a profoudly simplle lesson she learned.
This year I have not been too focused on Lent, I am ashamed to say. I had the stomach flu on Ash Wednesday, so I did not darken the church doors. I have been to Mass on Sundays, have abstained from meat on Fridays, have tried to pray more, and I even walked through the Stations of the Cross by myself one quiet afternoon. Despite these actions, I feel out of touch from the journey. I am soldiering through, however, for the sake of my own children and for the children I teach.
Two weeks ago in CCD class, I passed out Lenten offering cards. The purpose of these cards is to teach children about almsgiving. The children are supposed to help out around the house and do other good deeds in exchange for coins. During Holy Week they will donate their coins to our church’s food pantry. This is a lovely gesture, but as I passed out the cards I heard grumbling. “It’s Lent again?” “I guess I’ll have to give something up.” “I hate doing chores around the house.” I tried to ignore the grumbling. I said, “You’ll be okay. All kids do this during Lent. Even I had to do it.” As I was cleaning up the classroom, I reflected on my own Lenten experiences as a child and realized how different they were from my students’ experiences.
*Here, dear readers, I will warn you that my story may offend. I am merely reporting what occurred during my childhood, but some of you may find it irreverent or politically incorrect. I welcome you to skip to the next asterisk if you wish.
When I was in grade school I had to practice almsgiving during Lent. I had to do good deeds and chores around the house for spare change. The spare change went into a miter box, a cardboard box that looked like a half-pint milk carton. The money that I collected would be donated to the Holy Childhood Association, a wonderful charity. It provides clothing, food, shelter, medical care, clean water, education, and other necessities to children all over the world. As a grade schooler, though, I did not contemplate how many wells I was helping to dig or how many polio vaccines I was providing. No, the prize I had in mind was much better. If I collected ten dollars before my five weeks was out, I would get to name a pagan baby.
Saying “pagan” now makes me cringe. Yet the whole absurd process brings a smile to my face. In first grade, I managed to collect ten dollars. Before I left for Easter vacation, I turned in my money, and after Sister Beatrice Ann finished counting it she asked, “What name would you like to give your baby?” I replied, without hesitation, “Catherine.” I thought that naming the baby after the school principal would be a good idea. Sister Beatrice Ann filled out a little certificate for me with the baby’s name. I took the certificate home and displayed it on my dresser next to my palm from Palm Sunday. I was so proud of myself.
In second grade I managed the feat again, and this time I named my pagan baby Kate. Are you sensing a theme? In third grade, Sister Alice Marie decided that our whole class would pool our money so we could see how many pagan babies we could name. We collected enough to name three. Sister Alice Marie insisted that we name the first two Mary and Joseph, and she asked us to name the third. One of my classmates, Larry, shot his hand up in the air and shouted, “I know! We can name him Jesus!” Sister Alice Marie promptly cracked Larry across the chops and asked one of the girls in the class to come up with a more suitable name. “We can’t name the baby Jesus!” Sister Alice Marie spat. I felt bad for Larry. His choice seemed logical. I also felt like I had been cheated out of my Lenten journey that year. Naming a pagan baby had been my goal and my choice, and now it all seemed tainted.
In school years to come, I still received a miter box at the beginning of every Lent, but I just collected the money and donated it to the Holy Childhood Association. We were not able to name pagan babies any more. I assume that we were trying to become more politically correct, helping out our “non-Christian brothers and sisters” in “developing nations”. Later, as a college student, I had an open-mouth-insert-foot experience which made me realize how ridiculous and insulting the naming babies concept was. A professor had a child and named her Katherine. He announced this to us and, without thinking, I blurted out, “I love that name. I named all my pagan babies that!” The professor gaped, and I wished for the floor to open up and swallow me. After that experience I stored the pagan baby story away, but I think that in this particular Lenten season God has prodded me to ponder it and to see it in a new light.
*Upon reflection, I view my childhood experiences during Lent as times of excited expectation and effective change. Yes, I prayed and fasted and collected money in my miter box to give to others, but I also worked towards a goal. Though the prize at the end of the goal was bizarre, and I now suspect a gimmick to encourage generous donations, I looked forward to the prize and, as a result, entered Holy Week and the Easter Season feeling satisfied with my progress and happy.
How profound! Would it not be wonderful if as an adult I could enter into Holy Week with a purified heart, satisfied with my effort during the journey and waiting, “in joyful hope,” for the best event of the church year, the celebration of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death? It would, and the goal is attainable. The journey need not be arduous or remote. Perhaps it is a mere miter box away.