I love being Catholic, except at the start of Lent …
I’m thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent and about why religions have rules. All the monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have rules about what you can and can’t do if you want to remain in communion with the religion.
Different kinds of rules
Some of these are moral rules, such as not killing, stealing or sleeping with someone elses’s spouse. A lot of these moral rules have been absorbed into society as either laws or expectations of what is decent behaviour.
Other rules are to do with taboos or showing respect in a place of worship. For instance, taking your shoes off in a mosque or covering or uncovering your head in church depending on which sex you are, or being silent at set times.
The third type of rule is trickier. I’m thinking here of the rules to do with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and giving up something for the six weeks of Lent. This would be similar to Ramadam for Muslims.
My experience of Protestant churches was that there are generally no rules to do with fasting. However, the church in which I was brought up had high expectations of how we should keep the Sabbath. We were told not to do, say or think anything which wasn’t connected with God or religion. Needless to say, I totally failed. Although this rule was based on the fourth commandment, the way it was interpreted was so strict that I think it probably came under the third type of rule: religious practice.
So what is it about rules ….?
So, why is this third type of rule there? Not for a moral reason. After all, I’m probably not going to upset anyone if I eat chocolate during Lent.
When I was a young woman, still chafing from religious rules which were almost impossible to keep, I would have argued that this type of rule is only there to place a heavy burden on people. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against the Pharisees and their rules, which often drove people away from God, rather than bringing them closer. In no less than three Gospels, Jesus says that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause ‘these little ones’ to stumble (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).
After my experience of legalistic religion, I didn’t want anything to do with Christianity for many years. Now that I’ve become Catholic, I find that there are rules related to religious practice, such as fasting for an hour before Mass or giving up something for Lent. These aren’t onerous rules and exceptions can be made, for instance if you are ill or poor or a guest at a meal, you are excused from fasting on Ash Wednesday.
Before becoming Catholic, I became quite annoyed when my husband encouraged the children to give up chocolate for Lent. I couldn’t very well guzzle chocolate if the kids were giving it up. I hated giving up my autonomy for some silly religious reason.
My first reaction to Lent helps me to understand what it’s about. I think that Lent and other rules related to religious practice are there as an act of devotion. By making small changes in my behaviour, remembering not to eat or drink right before Mass, or buy chocolate during Lent, I’m voluntarily giving up a small part of my freedom. My thoughts turn to the reason why I am doing this, and I remember God.
I think it’s a bit like rearranging your day so that you can see someone you love, or going out of your way to cook something they like or go with them somewhere. If we love someone, we give up a bit of our autonomy to share things with them.
An act of devotion?
For various, very good reasons, I’m not giving up a lot this year in terms of food. A bigger challenge might be to give up time, to stop writing or surfing the internet a bit earlier and go to bed with a book which helps me turn my thoughts to God. Whether we give up big things or small things, the aim should be to love God more rather than see how well we can keep a rule.
My final thoughts bring me back to the rules of my childhood. I could brush my hair on the Sabbath Day, but not wash it. I could polish my shoes for church, but not wash clothes. We could cook Sunday dinner, but not prepare it; all the vegetables had to be washed and peeled the night before. I wasn’t allowed to play and had to sit still, even on sunny days, and read Christian books.
I experienced the many rules around the Sabbath as constricting and stifling. However, the old people in the church loved keeping the Sabbath as an act of devotion. What crushed the life out of me, was a delight to them.
Practices which bring one person closer to God, might drive another away. For this reason, it’s good that the church isn’t too prescriptive about rules. There will be some people who will give up a lot during Lent and spend many hours in prayer, and others, like me, who can only manage small things. Whether what we do is big or small, it’s important to do it as an act of devotion rather than just for the sake of keeping a rule.