I did have the thought on it before my priest mentioned the duality during my first Lenten confession. Yes, I said first. This was one of those seasons that needed more than one visit for reconciliation. Every time I cleared my conscience and received absolution, that pesky Lenten abstinence came and bit me in the willpower. Sometimes, it wasn’t even about the willpower; it was forgetfulness. In my four years of observing abstinence for Lent, this was the first year that nearly did me in. It truly was a reminder of the big picture and not so much the item given up.
I believe I’ve mentioned that it took me longer than usual to choose something to give up. I finally decided on bread, and then promptly forgot what bread was. it was in my mouth, and then I knew I was done for. I had been told, this year for the first time, that I could eat the forbidden item on Sundays, but I always seemed to forget that, and abstain on Sunday, and then trade it off for another day, like my son’s birthday or the parish Holy Thursday dinner, both Italian feasts that included the most amazing breads.
Not only that, but I even confessed to a priest who wasn’t my own for the first time. That felt weird, but I was on retreat, and wanted to be absolved before I began the retreat. I like beginning those with a clear head and heart.
So I gave up bread.
The reasons were two-fold. One was for the religion of it all. I have to give up something. What would be meaningful? The second reason was that bread was something my doctor wanted me to give up. I actually had given it up last year under doctor’s orders. That included all bread products, sugars, cakes, cookies, etc. Everything except flatbread. I lost nearly thirty pounds in three months of doing that. And then, I got lazy and complacent and gained it all back, and a little bit more. I thought that I’d try to follow the doctor’s plans as part of my Lenten abstinence and at the same time attempt to once again jump start my health care.
That is what Lent is about. Giving up something to make room for something else, in order to take on a new direction to focus. That focus is not only a benefit to my spirituality, but also physically. It is all connected.
Give up something; add something else. All for the greater goal of becoming closer to G-d, and keeping the positive action in my life when Lent ends.
For Lent, I didn’t give up all breads; just bread. Bread, rolls, croissants, bagels, French toast, English muffins, waffles but not pancakes. Not cakes or muffins or cookies, but pumpkin bread and raspberry swirl loaf. Corn bread, but not corn bread muffins or sweet cake. I would still eat flatbread as my doctor allowed during the first change. For some of them, as obvious as they are, I hadn’t realized what comprised of bread. French toast was the hard one. I love French toast. And bread pudding.
Not to brag, but I do have to admit that I made an amazing spinach quiche using broken matzo as a bottom crust. Everytime I’ve attempted quiche it’s been a disaster, but this one was spectacular. I’m planning on making it again before Passover ends.
Now the real question: In giving up the bread, what would I be taking on?
I’ve been keeping a Lenten journal since Ash Wednesday. I jot something in it every day; most days I have quite a lot, and if I left it off for the entire day, I wrote a little admonishment about forgetting or being tired, but I usually made up for it the next day, coming back to it two and three times or more throughout the day. There is no word minimum; just something contemplative, prayerful, meaningful every day. I have really loved doing this. I have already decided to continue it through the Easter season. I may keep it up as a prayer journal after that, but I will see how it goes through Pentecost.
Unless I had a retreat or a doctor’s appointment, I have also attended the daily nine o’clock mass. When I started attending those five years ago, they were something to do, something to keep my depression in check, to give me a schedule to adhere and then they became more. Now, I go because it’s Lent, but also because I miss going when I don’t. Whether the reason is that I’m busy or too lazy, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t go, and I really missed it in my life. It is a good beginning to any day.
For the past two weeks, I have added praying the rosary with the church group daily after those masses. While I have my issues with some of the political aspects of the after rosary prayers, I have still gotten something out of it for my spirit, and it has given me some incentive for working on my own prayer card for St. Elen, my name saint. It is in these informal prayer settings that I see how I, and anyone else can write their own prayers that will rise to the subject they are addressing, whether they be the Holy Mother, Jesus, the saints, or a family member deeply missed.
In giving up bread, however, I of course did not give up the Eucharist. For one thing, it is a flatbread, so technically it didn’t count for my purposes. It’s also not really a bread at all when it’s consecrated as Jesus. I also had to reconcile with myself the giving up of bread and then continuing to take the Eucharist during Passover which would be during the Lenten season and Holy Week. I have managed to separate the two that has worked for my purposes and conscience. The balance of the two isn’t quite a burden, but it is something that I do struggle with as I blend the two important observations without shorting either of them.
It was kind of perfect, though to give up bread. This is the season after all, that we are given life-giving bread; the season that celebrates its origins. While we receive it weekly, we are reminded of how it came to be during our Last Supper Mass. “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” It seemed appropriate that in giving up the bread of everyday, I was continuing to take the bread of redemption, of salvation. Every time I gave up a bread item during Lent, I was reminded of the bread I would receive each Sunday.
Every time I resisted a piece of bread or a biscuit, inside I smiled, not at my willpower or how wonderful I was to uphold my promise, but because of what giving up that bread represented. Instead of physical bread, I received eternal bread, and the taste of that lasts much longer and satisfies much more than regular, unconsecrated bread from wheat. I am nourished through the bread of Jesus, and it lingers with me throughout the day, and the days between my next taste.
Christ is Risen. Lent is over now, and I go back to my regular life. I hope that it includes regular masses during the week, and pausing when I eat my bread in memory of why I gave it up this Lent in the first place. It seemed apropos to substitute Christ’s bread for sustenance, and a never ending supply of faith and life everlasting.
Leading up to my sacraments, the one that was the most public, the one that everyone watches and sees always is receiving the host. No one would ever know (and most didn’t until a few months ago) whether or not I’d been baptized or confirmed, but everyone knew that I didn’t receive Eucharist.
I wasn’t particularly nervous about the logistics of it but there were a couple of things on my mind. I’m always anxious of tripping over my own two feet, and the thought did cross my mind of what might happen if I swallowed the wrong way and had a coughing fit. Coughing in church is a nightmare.
I think I thought that I’d feel like when you’re a kid and you’re constantly picked last and then you finally get picked in gym class or invited to the Slug Club in Harry Potter. I would be in this elite, privileged group and there would be some self-satisfied feeling of being part of ‘it’. Part of me felt bad for thinking this, and I also felt that that wasn’t what I wanted it to feel like.
But how else should it feel?
I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve received the Eucharist since my first time at the Easter Vigil, and it is so completely not like I thought it would be.
There is a slight nervousness of not knowing if I’m giving enough respect. Have I bowed low enough? I know I’m forgetting something at the end, but it’s not intentional; my respect and love for Christ is very much present.
I always have a pause because for that second I forget to say ‘amen’, especially when it’s Father Jerry giving me the body of Christ. I try to see his hand, the perfectly round wafer as he offers it to me, but invariably our eyes meet. In the last couple of weeks, he will say my name, and there’s an intensity in his look, a solemn shadow that emanates from his gaze that puts me in mind of the Mystery, and there is so much feeling that I’m receiving in my heart that the ‘Amen’ gets stuck for that moment.
It is all at once calm and comfort, belonging and humbling while at the same time remaining spiritual and wonderful and electrifying.
There is also feeling behind the wine, joy and excitement, but it is not as gripping as my initial and internal reaction to the Host.
Joining my brothers and sisters in Christ each day, there is that belonging, but not the prideful way that I was afraid of feeling. There are no mean girls, no cliques, no hazing. Each of us feels different things and even if we were to describe the experience using the same words, I would doubt very much that we’re feeling the same feelings.
I’m also glad it isn’t the kind of privilege of exclusion; it is not remotely elite. All are welcome here to participate in the liturgy, the breaking of bread, the sharing of sustenance. There is no self-satisfaction, no prideful better than you sentiment, but there is a satisfaction of contentment. There is feeling beneath your feet and the sensation that the path is so clearly ahead.
For me this daily reminder and partaking in the sharing of Christ’s body and blood is also a time to slow myself down beginning with the walk up to receive, to breathe, to clear my mind to everything except the host and for that moment let the Resurrection take hold as a reminder before my day moves forward.
There is no club, but there is belonging.