Saturday, March 22, 2008
Random Easter Thoughts
The nuns were constantly coaching us --- to say our prayers; to offer up life’s little frustrations for the intentions of the poor souls in purgatory; to say “aspirations” under our breath in idle moments, as a sort of insurance policy to help us get into heaven; to avoid occasions of sin; to guard against impure thoughts; to practice self denial at every opportunity, the better to discipline our bodies and our minds, and, in Lent, to go to Mass every morning for forty days. The next step would have been a hair shirt under our gymslip. It’s a wonder any of us grew up normal at all.
As we moved into our teens we’d press them for specifics. “ Impure thoughts” and “Occasions of sin” were wide-ranging topics. We were bright enough to pick up on their hints that everything we daydreamed about, anything that might give us pleasure, probably fell under the above headings. We also mutinously thought that a lot of what they passed off as “gospel” was utter rubbish. But the Church still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life, and so we kept our skepticism to ourselves. They could guilt us into the motions but they couldn’t control our motivation.
Pedalling like mad to Mass every morning for the forty days of Lent, for instance. Braving the wind and the biting February cold, at a God-awful hour each morning, instead of being tucked, snug in bed, getting the 8-10 hours of shut-eye required for healthy growth. Not out of piety, though that was what everyone was supposed to think. Oh no. ‘Twas all a cunning plan to arrive at the altar for communion at the same time as a particular bespectacled, blond lad. With a little strategic planning a person could even maneuver themselves into position so that, seemingly by utter chance, they’d end up actually kneeling beside said lad. And then a person would be on cloud nine for the rest of the day. From the distance of forty years later, it makes me think of a dog chasing a cat. Does he really have any clue what he’ll do if he catches it?
Those forty days seemed like an eternity back then. Not any more. Here we are, on the day before Easter, and Ash Wednesday seems like yesterday. No more pedalling like a wild woman in the half-dark of forty early mornings. Though when I do go to church these days, it's for the right reasons!
Even though we weren’t as pious as the nuns would have liked us to be, I miss the certainty of those times. I miss the rituals. I miss the way the year was sectioned off in parcels. There were the summer holidays, best times of all, then there was Advent, and Christmas, then Lent. And, if you managed to slog through those dreary, purple-draped days, you were rewarded at Easter with the arrival of Spring, and a new outfit to wear, and a big candy-filled chocolate egg from Cadburys. We’d all give something up for Lent, candy most often. Forty days and forty nights without chocolate! No wonder we could hardly wait to rip the silvery paper off our chocolate Easter egg! But not so fast! First we had to go to Mass and then eat our breakfast. Only then……
Easter dinner was a special, best cutlery, good china, leg of lamb affair, with a strong possibility of trifle for dessert; an airing-out-the-sitting-room-and-inviting-Auntie-Ita-over kind of event. Special. Exciting. Fun.
We never seriously questioned the basic beliefs we were taught. Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, had the same beliefs. Priests were like little tin gods. No one would dream of questioning them, or of being less than completely respectful to them, and we all know the sorry end that led to. Turns out they were all too human after all.
I still think about what I’ll “give up for Lent” every year when Ash Wednesday rolls around. Some things are easier than others. I’d probably more easily cut off an arm than give up drinking tea. And my feeble attempt to deny myself that jolt-me-awake cup of coffee in the mornings never made it out of the starter's gate. But I think they were teaching us something deeper. Not just to give up candy, or sugar in your tea, or coffee, or cigarettes, or desserts. They were teaching us to control our appetites, rather than letting them control us. All those exercises in self denial taught us mental discipline. They were good for us, though we didn’t think so at the time. Like Latin verbs. Who knew then that the day would come when we’d actually be glad we were forced to study that stuff?
Easter, to me, is about new beginnings, about it never being too late to start over. The resurrection symbolizes that. Or more secularly speaking, the phoenix rising from the ashes. But the old lessons from the holy nuns were hard learned. So I still say my prayers on occasion, though these days it's more like firing off an e-mail to the Big Boss now and again. I still offer up life's little frustrations ---crazy drivers, traffic jams, mal-functioning computers --- for the intentions of the poor souls in purgatory. And I have been known, in tense situations, to whisper "aspirations" under my breath, though not always of the prayerful variety. Occasions of sin and impure thoughts are fairly thin on the ground when you're looking sixty in the eye, so, since I've been such a model student, I'm hoping some of those deceased nuns from days of yore will wedge a saintly foot or two in the pearly gates, so I can slip through without trouble when the time comes!
I wish you a Happy Easter, Happy Spring, Happy New Beginnings!