Give it up for lent

by John R. Stiles

Lent. That time of year red-blooded American Catholic boys dreaded more than any other. That's when the nuns would go around the classroom and all us kids would have to come up with something we were either going to give up or offer up over the 40 days leading up to Easter. Of all the choices a guy had throughout his young life, finding something to sacrifice that was just moving enough to fool the nuns into thinking you might be leaning toward piety and yet easy enough to cheat on out of sight of the habits was one of the toughest. It always helped to go to school, in my case St. Joseph's Academy, with a backup plan or two. I once had it all set up to donate my extra milk money to the ''pagan babies'' we'd adopt at the start of each and every school year, and that was the time the kid two seats in front of me grabbed my ''give-up.'' What a rat.

I hated milk anyway, but that's not the point now is it? Then there was the time I was going to say the rosary three times per week in the solitude of my room. That was another key ingredient in any really brilliant Lenten plan - always make it something that can't be checked up on easily. Of course, there never really was any solitude in my room. I had to share it with my brother and the two of us used to battle constantly. But I figured that I could fake it easy enough. You know, by using the shorthand version of the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary? ''Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be, name, give us, bread, forgive us, trespasses 'ginst sss, as we forgivvvv mmmmm, but deliver, evil, amen.'' You need about 10 of those, and another 50 ''Hail Mary, full a grace, the Lord ss, blessed womb, now, hour, death, amen.'' Then the kid one row over promises to say the rosary five times per week and offer it up for all the world's ''pagan babies.'' And I know this guy. He ain't kiddin' and he don't even know the shorthand version of the rosary. So a backup plan is an absolute must. That and making sure that whatever you chose, make sure that the bulk of the exercise was performed in the safety of your own home, where the penguins couldn't see what was goin' on. You know, if you go in with something like keeping your room clean throughout Lent and helping little old ladies across the street, you've gotta have an ''I won't eat meat until Easter,'' or ''I'll make sure to clean my plate at each and every meal because there are so many other kids in this world who don't have enough to eat.'' My grandmother, the most pious person I ever knew, once tried to tell me to eat everything on my plate because there were children starving in some remote spot on the globe. ''Fine, Gram, send 'em what's left on my plate,'' was my response, which drew an immediate smack from my mom and one of those forehead shoves my dad was always so famous for. I once tried the ole' Christmas reverse. You know the one, where you talk all the time about how it's somuch better to give than receive. Well my scam, 'er approach, was to offer to be sort of a repository as it were for all those who were looking for someplace to direct all their charitable and pious acts. I'd have made it, too, if it'd been anybody else but me. I guess my real downfall was trying to sell ole' S'ster Harbor Police (Barbara Therese) on the idea it was much better not to do without, because that would do so much more for everybody else's soul. I have to admit, looking back on it now, it really was a long shot. But if the rest of the class could have kept a straight face during my spiel, I just might have pulled it off. Maybe it was that part about ''if I don't do without, then I'll suffer the burden of a guilty conscience. There's really so much nobility in that sacrifice S'ster, don'tcha think?'' Too bad that unlike the United States Constitution, there's no Fifth Amendment in the Catholic Church. You can't decline to answer because of self-incrimination. It might not make much sense to you right now, but if you had to sit in the last row and listen while all the good sacrifices are being taken ahead of you, you'd hit the panic button every once in a while yourself. I truly believe the key to my surviving more than 50 Lents is my imagination. You've gotta have a vivid imagination. But, actually, thank God I think so much faster on my feet these days. Hey, what do you know, I might finally be getting this Lenten thing after all? I really always wanted to give up something like liver, spinach, asparagus or broccoli, none of which I can stand to this very day. But I could never quite get up just the right facial expression to make the nuns believe that going without these items would be any real sacrifice. Well, what'd you expect?

Show me a kid who likes things like liver, spinach, asparagus and broccoli, and I'll show you a kid who'll promise five rosaries per week and not cheat by using shorthand. ''S'ster, I'm going to give up parking in handicapped spaces for the next 40 days. And, just to show you I mean business, unlike all those other things I promised to give up and then ducked out on, I'll stick to this promise even if, God forbid, I'm struck with some handicap during the same period of time.'' Just kidding, S'ster.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 5, 2000

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