LENT: Then and Now
by Phyllis Bohonis
WWe are now into another forty days of Lent. As I read my church bulletin under the section titled Norms for Lenten Observance, which include two days of fast and abstinence and a reminder that all Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence which means I cannot eat meat on those days, I smile and allow my mind to take me back to Lent during my childhood and young adult years.
In the 1940’s and early 50’s, Lent was a slightly different time of reflection and penance. Ash Wednesday was just the beginning. Fridays were no different back then because we didn’t eat meat on Fridays anyway — a show of respect meant to remind us that Christ died on a Friday.
Everyone entered into acts of self-denial to remind us that in biblical times, going into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer was not uncommon. Giving up candy, not eating dessert and certainly not going to movies or attending dances were the common restrictions our parents asked of us. However, it was not only what we didn’t do that mattered, it was what we did extra that was going to elevate our place in heaven.
The parish church and parochial school I attended were not close to our home. We had to catch the bus in the winter which dropped us off four blocks from our destination. Daily mass always started at 7:30 in the morning so that meant getting up 6 a.m. so that we could pack our breakfast and lunch into one box and walk to the bus stop about for about 6:40. It was the same bus and route that my dad took to work each morning so he made sure we were up and out the door with him, no matter the weather. If he could do it, we could too. After Mass, we crossed the street and ate our breakfasts in the school gym then played outside for a half hour before school started, no matter the weather. My sister and I weren’t alone. Most of the children in the school attended daily Mass. There was always roll call at the opening of daily classes to keep track of who had been to church and who had not. For each mass attended we received a gold star beside our name. It became a friendly competition among us to see who would have the most stars at the end of Lent.
As children we did not have to fast but our parents did. Our meals were nourishing and filling but without dessert. On Friday evenings we attended the Stations of the Cross at church, a prayer event in which the priest and congregation recite prayers in front of each of thirteen images around the perimeter of the interior of the church representing the stages of Christ’s crucifixion.
Our non-Catholic friends knew what restrictions were placed on us during Lent and many of them kept us company in our Lenten journey. Dances and parties weren’t planned. Movies were avoided. We didn’t have televisions in our homes until the mid-fifties so that didn’t enter the picture. This is when most of us learned the fine art of playing cards, canasta the all-out favourite. And of course there was always reading. We all had library cards which were well used, especially during Lent. We didn’t complain we were bored or that there was nothing to do because our parents would quickly find something for us to do and it usually involved a broom, a shovel or a cleaning rag.
On Good Friday everything was closed. No one, of any denomination, took part in any entertainment. Stores and movie theaters were empty and dark. By that weekend, our bicycles were sometimes in use even if there were still bits of snow on the ground. So we hung out on each other’s front steps, went to church for two o’clock in the afternoon, talked about what we wanted for Easter while our mothers were kept busy putting the finishing touches on our home-sewn Easter outfits. We had to look clean and fresh for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
At Easter Sunday Mass, the organ music was loud and full of rejoicing. The choir filled the church with their alleluias. Lent was over. Christ had died and risen again. Life was good. We feasted on chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs. We dressed in our new spring outfits. We had suffered through another forty days of fasting and self-denial. We had gone to church daily, twice on Fridays and had earned a higher place in heaven. Now we could sleep in until 7:30 a.m. each morning. We could eat breakfast at home and only take our lunch to school. We could attend the movie theatres and go to spring dances. Within a week, all thoughts of what we had done without were forgotten. What had seemed cruel and unusual punishment was now almost forgotten. As I grew older, I realized our parents hadn’t purposely been mean to us during Lent, they, in fact, had to “suffer” through worse restrictions for forty days than us kids had.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. I fasted between meals and abstained from eating meat. After supper my son and I attended Mass and received ashes on our foreheads. I will try to get to church a little more often during Lent, somewhat easier now as it doesn’t start until 9 a.m. and I don’t have to take a bus. I’ve reached an age that I’m not bound any longer by a number of the restrictions of Lent. Age does have its advantages. I still try to perform some act of self-denial. Last year it was Facebook. It will, in all likelihood, be the same this year. I don’t attend movies much and haven’t been to a dance in years. Television isn’t a big part of my life. I don’t get easily bored anymore and I still have a library card and love to read.
Lent certainly is not the hardship now that it was then. I only hope I earned enough gold stars back in the day that I’m not in danger of losing my place in heaven.