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When I was growing up, I used to give up something for Lent every year — usually my mother’s warm custard pudding, which she always had ready for me right out of the oven every day when I came home from school. Custard meant love to me, and in some ways it was like giving up a piece of her. When that got too painful, I gave up going to the movies with my friends. After 40 agonizing days, the payoff would always be a fabulous outfit, complete with a hat and Mary Janes to wear to church on Easter Sunday.
Of course, I had no idea what Lent was or why we had to give up something we liked for that long. My parents weren’t terribly religious, but they always talked a good game. Both of them were chain smokers, and it was always cigarettes that they were going to give up. They couldn’t fool me, though. After the first week, they both had the telltale smells of tobacco on them.
I never thought about Lent much as an adult until about seven years ago, when I started OnFaith. Even then, I ran pieces that felt obligatory, but my curiosity has been piqued over the past few years by word of the annual and famous Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race at the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. What on earth did pancakes have to do with Shrove Tuesday? And what exactly was Shrove Tuesday, anyway?
This year, I finally called Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral, to find out what the fuss is about.
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. “Shrove” means to confess or to seek forgiveness for one’s sins. Lent lasts 40 days until Easter and has long been practiced as a time of penitence, giving up pleasure, and preparing for baptism at Easter. But things in the church are changing, at least in some quarters.
Hall says he is surprised at how many people “come out of the woodwork for Lent.” But for many believers, abstinence has been replaced by taking on a special kind of service, such as some form of social activism.
Hall thinks that the public perception of Lent is still overly penitential. “Spirituality is about paying attention. It’s okay to give up things, such as booze or tobacco, if they get in your way. You should ask what you need to focus yourself.”
Hall says he still gives up things for Lent, as well as taking things on. “Lent is about getting ready to take in the glory of Easter. You go off in the desert, you live in spareness, you come back into the world, silent and quiet.”
Since he has stopped drinking and smoking and he’s not really a red meat person, Hall has already given up most of his old vices. One year he gave up buying books because he loves to read. Another year he gave up the news. Yet another year he didn’t buy anything that he did not absolutely need. “That really helped me,” he said. ”It’s not like I’m buying fast cars or anything, but it was kind of hard.”
Hall is still planning this year’s fast. “I need to focus on habits,” he says. “I spend a lot of time running with my iPod, and I’m thinking of giving that up. Extraneous noise. I might give up listening to music on my car radio or in my office, just to stay in silence. We have this thing in our culture where we take on things outside of ourselves. Silence is a way of listening to yourself. I’m on overload on all of that stuff, on constant noise.”
As for the pancakes: Hall explains that the tradition comes from people trying to eat up all the fattening foods with sugar and flour and butter before having to give them up. “My mother actually has an old Joy of Cooking cookbook with Lenten recipes in it,” he says. The pancake races on Shrove Tuesday supposedly began in Olney, England, when a housewife was cooking pancakes and heard the church bells ring for the Shrove Tuesday service. She was in such a rush to get to church that she raced out of her house carrying her frying pan with pancakes in hand.
The race is a tradition in England, and the National Cathedral has heartily embraced it. You have to race a certain distance flipping your pancakes without dropping them. Last year, Hall challenged the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Mariann Budde. He won when the wind blew her pancake to the ground. “I have the Golden Skillet in my office,” he says proudly.
To simplify, things the Cathedral uses frozen De Wafelbakkers, but you can find real Shrove Tuesday pancake recipes online. The traditional ones are more like thin crepes with lemon and sugar rather than thick American ones with Maple syrup and butter.
The tame pancake races here and in England couldn’t be more different than what happens in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures. In Brazil, Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday” in French) is several frenzied days of pure debauchery. In Germany, the same celebration is called Fasching, which comes from “fasen” and means to be wild and crazy. I’ve seen it firsthand — when I was living in Germany, Munich was the hotbed of the most lurid activities just before Lent. Everyone wore costumes and masks and went to massive balls. I had several married couple friends who admitted that they separated at the door and went home with other people on the nights of the big balls. They felt that it was an annual way to release all of the frustration and anxiety of day-to-day married life. Their mantra: “alles vergeben, alles vergessen.” All is forgiven, all is forgotten.
Speaking of sex, Hall says he has a Jesuit friend who claims he is giving up celibacy for Lent. “You know,” he says, “St. Augustine says Christians shouldn’t give up sex for Lent because it is an essential part of our nature. It’s not appropriate unless you are a professional celibate.”
I’ve been thinking about giving something up for Lent this year. I thought about wine and pasta, but decided that won’t be particularly spiritually fulfilling. Gary Hall is right that there’s too much noise in our lives, but I’ve already been practicing silence lately, even going on a silent retreat at a monastery. I meditate every day.
Many of the people who love me the most often affectionately mention that I can sometimes be a bit controlling. Me, controlling? What an interesting thought! Maybe I could give up being controlling for forty days. The very idea is relaxing and liberating. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll give up control for Lent.
So here on Fat Tuesday is one last act of control: If you haven’t yet decided what you would like to give up, let me tell you: You have to do it! Do it not just for your own spiritual wellbeing, but also for those closest to you. Pig out on pancakes Tuesday, and on Wednesday get with the program. I’ll be trying right along with you.