It is the task occasionally of the blogger devoted to the readers’ (as distinct from but hopefully not opposed to, her own) good, to remind said readers of an unpleasant fact or two. Some like to refer to such unpleasant reminders as “public service announcements.” I suspect that the usher who closed the Shrine half an hour early was merely giving the worshippers a public service announcement; and I am fairly certain that the advertisers who load my mailbox with circulars and my inbox with spam are performing a public service in so doing. About the man who points out a smudge on my blouse of the woman who sees a spot on my tie I am less sure. As for the professor who finds it a public service to announce the deadline for our twenty-page research papers, his proclamation may be public, and might even by a stretch be deemed serviceable; but the marriage of the two terms seems to be taking the compliment to his generosity too far.
It is my hope, therefore, that my post today may appear more in the sound light of the usher’s and advertiser’s services, and not in the dubious radiance of the friends’ and teachers’; but lest I should be thought to be in imitation of the latter, let me disavow the merit of “public service” altogether, and present my post as the poor, mere unpleasant, killjoy reminder that it is.
Ash Wednesday comes next week.
I was speaking with a friend about it, trading suggestions—or, rather, trying to pick his brain for a few, in the vain hope that there might be some prospective penance less unpleasant than the things I had been doing for years, and still respectable enough offer up; and we came jointly to the realization that, in point of fact, there is no such thing as a respectable penance for Lent. Consider:
(1) One can, of course, give up chocolate for Lent, or (if one is very holy or one’s parents very strict) give up sweets altogether. The problem with this, of course, is that there are actually good reasons, dental and other, for giving up chocolate: if, for example, one’s arteries are not so cheery as they used to be, the decrease in cholesterol may do them good. And even from a gustatory standpoint, I can vouch for the fact that not having sugar for a while does astonishingly refreshing things for the palate as a whole. Of course, one finds that one can never enjoy a candy bar in the same way again—but then, one enjoys everything else ever so much more. But that isn’t the point of Lent, is it?
(2) Mutatis mutandis, the same sort of objection applies to giving up things like meat (or red meat) and alcohol, with the additional wrinkle that, well, red meat and alcohol are actually good for you—in small doses, anyway, as long as you trim the fat and stay away from the beer—neither of which is the tastiest part of the package in the first place.
(3) There is always, to be sure, the option of fasting (besides Ash Wednesday and Good Friday themselves—heavens, mon frères! we take some things for granted here). But like all the penances in this category, such an undertaking tends to decrease the excess avoirdupois, which is dangerous if one hasn’t any and dubious if one does. One questions the purity of motives.
(4) Moving away from gustatory matters, it is always possible to give up reading fiction. The problem is that, even if this English major modified the definition to “non-essential fiction reading” it would still stand symbolically as a rejection of everything this culture has been trying to get rid of for the last twenty years; and (as Fulton Sheen says) who wants to float downstream? I mean, if I can’t evangelize by reading P.G. Wodehouse in hardcover on the metro, what hope have we got left? Besides, as long as one stays away from those romances that St. Theresa talks so much about, I think the saints were mostly in favor of books.
(5) Then there are movies. The problem with giving up them is twofold. (a) I hardly see enough of them to give up in the first place; and (b) most of my movie-watching is done with others, as a pseudo-social—well, no, actually, a genuinely social undertaking. Now, I know Lent is also about creating a space of meditative silence in our lives; but when most of one’s day is either work or silence anyway, and you’re looking at three hours of friendship on a weekend, is that really something one wants to—something one ought to—dispose of? And as a writer I’d have to be making all sorts of exceptions for work anyway …
(6) As for TV—well, let’s just say I haven’t seen a single episode of Downtown Abbey. Like candy, if you don’t have the stuff in the house in the first place … Why is it that I’m already beginning to feel like a monk?
(7) I believe it was somewhere at this point in the conversation that my friend mentioned his highschool spiritual director, who recommended pebbles in the shoes. Not to be a—well, a girl about this, but the spiritual director and my friend are both male. I don’t know that anyone who’d worn women’s shoes for a great length of time would suggest that they could be—or if they could, that they should be—made any more uncomfortable. I suppose I could give up wearing heels for Lent, and mortify my vanity; but then the comfort level would be so much greater that (as with the chocolate above) I’d feel almost guilty for the pleasure.
(8) It was at this point that said friend brought up cold showers. Now I confess to shuddering at the thought of an ice-cold-for-all-fifteen-minutes shower; but (as I was forced to admit to said friend) lots of girls (self included) rinse their hair in cold water anyway. It’s actually much better for the cuticles (yes, your hair has cuticles too; and cold water makes them close up and gives the follicles shine). So, as with the heels above, we find that what increases discomfort increases vanity. I suppose I could just switch to hot water for the whole shower, and dry out my hair for forty days … at which horrible thought, I shudder even more.
Sometimes I think just being female is penance enough. I mean, didn’t God say something like that to Eve? Everything will be “it’s complicated” from now on? I seem to remember a passage in Genesis …
Or maybe this isn’t about Original Sin. Maybe this is just another of the problems that comes with being an Aristotelian instead of a normal person. There are no wrong choices … When everything’s eudaimonic, nothing will be … The limitless freedom of “—and do what you will” becomes meaningless if I can no longer draw a giraffe …