Guilt, fear and other obstacles

By Jean Fitzpatrick

You’d think by now I’d have recovered from the Lent of my childhood. The problem wasn’t about fasting or giving up chocolate; it was bigger than that. Ordinarily I liked most things about church — the gleaming vestments and the stained glass and the soaring music — but during Lent the whole place turned weird. On Ash Wednesday, I was somehow convinced, the priest rubbed the charred remains of dead people on our foreheads. I’m sure no one had ever told me that, but it seemed to fit in with the big, gloomy picture: Jesus was dead, everything was draped in purple, and it was all our fault. During the Stations of the Cross, O Sacred Head droned through the sanctuary, where the incense fog was so thick I’d get woozy. Head between my knees in the pew, not sure whether I was about to throw up or pass out, I wondered where God had gone and why he was letting all these crazy things happen in his church.

Those days are over, you’re saying. We don’t teach Lent that way now. And it’s true that I’ve talked to various clergy and read a variety of spiritual writers who have done their best to convey a more grace-filled understanding. The season’s not dreary for the sake of being dreary, they say; it’s an opportunity for contemplation or intentional action. In my own parish the Sunday school kids join the rector in the churchyard and burn the palms from Palm Sunday to produce Ash Wednesday’s ashes, which should eliminate any macabre confusion.

Sadly, though, there are others who still don’t get it. I’m thinking of the priest who proudly told me how she brings her parish children down into the church basement and rubs an iron nail into their palms. And then there’s the one who surprised a group of teens with a full-on mock crucifixion: he blindfolded them, scratched their palms with a nail, and pressed a vinegar-soaked sponge to their lips. I wonder how this approach differs from the Halloween hell houses organized in denominations we like to think of as less compassionate than our own. Why don’t people recognize that kids have much more vivid imaginations than your average adult Muggle? That children learn through their senses before they can think theologically is one of the great blessings of their spirituality, but it leaves them impressionable; they need our protection, our care. Certain activities are better left to consenting adults. In a culture where kids are already inundated with violent images in videogames and films, we need to be sure our most vivid lessons — even during Lent — convey that we are on the side of the angels.

After all, God doesn’t observe Lent, or impose it on us. Lent is for people. As religious educators of children or adults, our role is to offer the tools and traditions that will help them experience the season as a time for reflection, as both somber and life-giving. I’m certainly a fan of the carbon fast posted on this site, for example. I’ve done some experimenting of my own, gone from giving up Lent altogether to trying a hands-on approach that included baking hot cross buns for my family.

Recently I’ve settled on praying the news and then taking a small step toward change. As I write these words I read the headlines on “Six dead as gunman ‘goes to war’ with Missouri city,” “CIA director: Waterboarding necessary, but potentially illegal,” and “Violations of ‘Islamic teachings’ take deadly toll on Iraqi women.” For a few minutes I close my eyes. And then I open my checkbook and write a donation to a new charity and to the Presidential candidate of my choice. For this year, anyway, that’s the rhythm of my daily Lenten practice.

How are you observing Lent? What are you teaching the adults and children in your congregation?

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at

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