In 1950’s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior. But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.
Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city. Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s, recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation. As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences. On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people.
We enjoyed celebrations as much as anyone, but if we wanted necklaces, we threw baseballs into a clown’s mouth at the county fair. Kids who wanted to party went on hayrides, took sleds to the park or pulled taffy. Adults in the mood for dinner and dancing – even a drink or two – went to the Elks Club or Masonic Lodge on Friday nights and on Sunday whole families went to the Grange Hall for chicken and noodles. Parades were reserved for Homecoming, Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Besides, when Mardi Gras rolled around there still was six feet of snow piled along the streets – who wanted to watch a parade in those conditions?
We did understand that Mardi Gras marked the end of preparation for Lent; it was everyone’s last chance to cut loose until Easter. On Shrove Tuesday, as we called it, even the lapsed faithful ate pancakes and sausage at the Methodist Church. Afterwards, the men went outside to smoke and the women did dishes while kids clustered together in small, serious groups to consider what they should “give up for Lent”.
In truth, we didn’t understand Lent any better than we understood Mardi Gras. We knew the heavy velvet curtains behind the cross in the sanctuary would change to purple and we knew Wednesday evening television would give way to a few weeks of soup suppers and Lenten services, but above all we knew we had to decide in a hurry what we’d be “giving up” for the long, forty-day season ahead of us.
Like many children, we were practical, cunning, naïvely legalistic and skilled in the art of meeting parental expectations, so we had little difficulty selecting fitting disciplines. From our perspective, giving up watermelon for Lent wasn’t a joke, it was a way of meeting religious requirements with minimum pain. Once we learned a certain reticence in discussing spiritual matters could win us praise from adults, we were home free. Having given up that watermelon, we simply looked our parents squarely in the eye and said, “It was a deeply personal decision. I’d rather not talk about it.”
Over the years, assorted friends gave up cursing the dog (he had a turtle), passing notes in school (she never did, anyway), artichokes (what?) and eggnog (gone since Christmas). One particularly creative boy tried to convince his parents God had called him to give up attending Church services during Lent. Pitting themselves against the will of the Almighty, his parents decreed he would be attending worship anyway, and suggested he make another choice.
If you think our approach to Lenten discipline lacked seriousness, you’d be wrong. When it came to making commitments that wouldn’t affect our lives one way or the other, we were utterly serious. Our assumption was that, if adults were going to attempt to impose discipline on us, they deserved what they got.
Such deeply-ingrained habits are hard to break, and the thought patterns of a child sometimes reappear decades later in amazingly pristine form. When I hear aging Boomers talk about what they’re giving up for Lent, it can feel as though I’m back in the church basement with Valerie and Bobbi. Giving up Pawn Stars could be a good thing, but it’s more likely the adult equivalent of giving up watermelon.
Certainly, we’ve grown and matured. We understand a good bit more about Lent and we understand discipline should have a purpose. Some make significant sacrifice, giving up smoking, chocolate, Bailey’s or Bombay Sapphire. From time to time, discipline takes a positive tone and we decide to lose ten pounds, get the closets cleaned, start walking again or pay off the credit cards.
Each of these disciplines is virtuous and productive, even if they do sound suspiciously like recycled New Year’s resolutions that began to fade into oblivion about January 18th. We may take them more seriously than we took our childhood commitments, but there’s still something a bit “off” about the whole endeavor. Many who grew up with Lenten discipline want to maintain the tradition and often feel guilty if they don’t, but it can be extraordinarily difficult to become truly engaged in the process. Not to put too fine a point on it, Lent’s season often seems detached from life.
Hesitance towards Lenten discipline sometimes is rooted in ambivalence toward discipline in general. When we were children, discipline often meant punishment. As adults, we equate discipline with denial. In fact, the point of spiritual discipline in many traditions – not just Christian and not only Western – is quite different. The point is not to punish or deny, but to help us claim our true nature. In the simplest terms, we need discipline because we are not yet the people we are meant to be. Discipline functions like a splint for the soul, keeping us straight and true until we are able to stand freely on our own.
The dandelion growing in the corner of my lawn or the osprey diving with signal grace have no need of special disciplines precisely because they are so perfectly themselves. From seed to lovely puff, a dandelion is a dandelion. From egg to final dive, an osprey lives its nature. We are not so graced. All our potential, all the beauty and strength and love of the human spirit is not fully formed at birth. It takes a lifetime to become human.
The points of connection between natural realities and human aspiration are innumerable, and where they become visible, they delight. We learn gratitude from the trust of rescued creatures, attentiveness from the devotion of animal parents to their young, joy from the cascading thrill of a mockingbird’s song.
This year, feeling the need to learn greater patience and perseverance, I’ve taken the lovely heron as my guide. Few creatures in nature show more patience. Poised at the edge of a slough, perched unmoving on docks, following fishermen with their heads cocked and beaks expectantly cracked as they wait for the flip of a fish, they are the embodiment of steadfast, graceful determination.
Motionless for hours, completely at peace and yet utterly alert, they await the crab, fish or frog that is at once their need, their satisfaction and delight. In the stillness of the morning I see them come, and with evening’s departure I see their presence fade like the shadows rippling across the water. Their easy endurance gives me peace, just as the elegant precision of their art inspires my own.
Standing at the edge of this season, knowing my need for perseverance, I watch the heron. He makes no resolutions. He gives up nothing. He is simply and beautifully himself, and he will become a lesson for my heart.