So what is it about rules ….


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.


Lent …. again


Just when there is a stretch in the days, and the wind dies down and the sun casts a pale shadow through the cloud, Father K stands up at the end of Mass, waves an envelope with the SCIAF collection box, and reminds us that Lent begins on Wednesday.

What, Lent? Already? My health hasn’t been great recently, so I haven’t indulged in coffee or chocolate for a while. Now that my stomach has finally settled down, I find out that there are only a few days left to enjoy it.

Why, oh why, oh why, did I join a church which has an annual six week period of penance? Because I had to, is the answer. I’m not talking about external pressure, but about the still, small voice inside, which said that this was the way I must go. I might not always like it, or feel like doing it, and I might moan about it, but I have to go on.

What I used to think about Lent

As a Protestant, I had very vague ideas about Lent. I knew that it had something to do with Pancake Tuesday, and using up all your eggs. However, I thought that it was a sort of medieval thing which people didn’t do any more.

I got a bit of a shock some years ago when my husband announced that it was Lent, and that it would be a good idea for us all to give up chocolate until Easter.

My angry reaction was out of all proportion to the small sacrifice involved. I enjoyed my wee nibble of chocolate now and then and no-one, certainly not some stuffy, traditional church, was going to dictate if and when I would give it up.

However, I knew that small children will not give up chocolate biscuits, if they see their mother eating them, and so I went along with it. I started without much good grace, but soon realised that giving up something made me conscious of others who had much less than I had. It made sense. Perhaps this was the first step on a slippery slope which eventually brought me into the Catholic church.

How things are now

Even though I’ve done Lent a few times, it doesn’t get any easier. I’m a bit apprehensive. Last year was difficult. Without even trying to turn up at church in a penitent mood, I found that I was quite affected by Lent and became very conscious of my own failings and inadequacies.

In a world where resources are so unevenly distributed, and where foodbank collection points have become a permanent feature in the local supermarket, I hope that doing without small luxuries for a while, will help me to be grateful for what I have, and remember others who don’t have enough.

Lent is mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. When I think of Lent, I remember that Christ gave up far more than I can ever understand just to take on human form. I’m sure that he enjoyed his human life. He started his public ministry at a wedding feast, after all. However, he willingly gave up his life.

I’ve just used up all the cocoa in the house. I’m still not sure what this year’s Lent will involve, but I think that it may require an internet diet. If I write this blog, it might just be to put up quotes I’ve found useful. Best wishes for the Lenten season.




More thoughts about Ash Wednesday

I was quite a way through the day before I found out that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday. It was a bit too late by then, but how was I supposed to know when no-one had told me? I guess that Catholic converts are supposed to just pick up these things as they go along. I’d probably have run a mile if I’d been handed a manual of rules when I decided to become Catholic, so it’s just as well that I wasn’t.
I guess that the rules only make sense if they help you get to the spirit of what’s behind them. Many years ago, when I married, people wondered if I was going to become Catholic like my husband. My reaction was, “No chance. Why would I exchange one traditional church and its heavy burden of rules with another?”
Now I’ve come full circle. I didn’t keep rules (apart from traffic ones) for many years. I no longer feel I have to keep religious rules to please other people, or because I’m scared of the consequences of breaking them. I could just ignore this new set of rules, but if I did, maybe I would miss out on an important lesson which the rule is trying to teach me. Somewhere in the middle, between keeping rules for the wrong reason and ignoring them altogether, is a very narrow path where keeping the rule leads to a deeper understanding of some aspect of faith.
Why do religion at all? Is it for the show of the thing, or for the spirit? God is bigger than all of our religions, but without the discipline of some kind of religious practice can we really know God? I’m sure that we can have some knowledge of God without religion, but will we be challenged to go further? I don’t know the answers. I’m just throwing up questions here.
How long are you supposed to keep the ashes on your forehead? There’s another question I don’t know the answer to. I didn’t want to wipe them off right after leaving church, and so I walked home through our mainly Protestant town, with a hat that didn’t quite pull down all the way to my eyebrows. I’ve made some mental notes to prepare for Ash Wednesday next year:
1 Grow a long fringe and/or
2 Bring a low brimmed hat to church

Queuing up for ashes

Today I queued up to receive ashes on my forehead. I’ve stood in line for cinema tickets, at supermarket tills, at airport check-in desks and, only recently, to receive the Eucharist. This is the first time I’ve joined people quietly waiting their turn to receive a sign of penance and be reminded of their mortality.
I haven’t been too sure about Ash Wednesday. It seemed like another strange thing which Catholics do and Protestants don’t. Becoming a Catholic is like entering a foreign country where people have different customs which I’m struggling to follow. It’s a very humbling to be probably at least half-way through my life and realise that I have so much to learn.
I wondered if I would go to the church today. I was curious, but a little bit scared, because it wasn’t a regular Saturday evening or Sunday morning Mass. I asked myself, as I often do, what’s the point of going to church not just on Ash Wednesday, but on any day at all.
Last year, I went to Mass on Easter Sunday for the first time in my life. The church was packed and there was an incredible feeling of joy and celebration. It wasn’t quite my first Easter Sunday service ever, but I hadn’t attended many because Easter wasn’t celebrated in the church I grew up in.
I decided today that I can’t expect to understand the full meaning of the Easter celebrations if I don’t also take part in Ash Wednesday and Lent. After I got over hoping no-one noticed that I didn’t know what to do, I was glad that I went. The church was solemn and quiet and I felt that we are all in this together, struggling, failing, and yet still turning towards God. I had read that last year’s Easter palms were burnt to make the ashes we received, and I thought about how sorrow and joy are often closely interlinked.
I was glad that I made the effort to go out today, because it was a chance to set aside other things for a short while and be silent. Sometimes my mind wanders and nothing seems to happen when I go to Mass, but how do I know what God is doing in the times I am quiet and empty? I can’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but in accepting the ashes I acknowledged that my own efforts aren’t enough. I didn’t create myself and ultimately, as a friend of mine once said to me, we’re not the ones in charge. The smudge of ashes on my forehead was a reminder that I need to make space for God.