There was always one kid in catechism class who raised his hand and asked if he could give up homework for Lent. I was not that kid. I dug deep to find the thing whose absence would most torture me — usually chocolate. As an adult, I gave up coffee one Lent. That nearly killed my body, but had no discernible effect on my soul. In retrospect, it was pretty grandiose to suppose that God would care about my caffeine intake.
For my 33rd Lent, I was in chemotherapy. I had a hard time keeping anything down, making the idea of giving anything up redundant. I told people I’d given up dying for Lent, which was a lot like giving up homework. But I also resolved that if I lived to see another Lent, I’d find a way to spend those 40 days productively. From that point on, all my self-denial had some purpose. For instance, I gave up my lunch hour every day one Lent to write letters for Amnesty International. It wasn’t the giving up that mattered so much as the taking on.
My biggest effort came during the Lent I resolved to stop saying unkind things. It was harder than giving up coffee, soda, and candy all at once. This is proof of flawed character, compounded by upbringing. I was raised in a large family in which wit was highly valued, sometimes at the expense of kindness. Insulting each other was a sport. As I grew older and spent more time with people outside my family, I noticed our dinner table banter could be hurtful to people not used to it. Sometimes I curbed my tongue. But too often I left a trail of nasty remarks like ground glass in my wake.
I remember a party to which an acquaintance wore a red leather mini-dress with an oddly shaped cut-out in the back.
“What’s with the back of that dress?” my husband asked me.
“That’s where the batteries go,” I replied.
My remarks struck me as not unlike what Bette Davis might say — and not in one of those movies where she turns out to be good in the end. And I found myself making comments like these all the time.
So I decided that during Lent I would carry with me a large coffee can, dropping in a quarter whenever I said something unkind — more if it was especially wicked. People asked me what I was doing, and I explained. When they asked mewhat I was going to do with the money at the end of Lent, I would say, “Build a hospital in Peru.”
I remember one meeting during which the fellow who purchased our office supplies explained why we bought computer disks that required 10 minutes of formatting. A ready-touse disk cost only 4 cents more. I argued that unless anyone on staff was making 24 cents an hour, this was not saving us money. But my colleague said that people need downtime during the day to relax. We could relax and be productive formatting disks. I looked at him long and hard, then dropped eight quarters into my coffee can.
As Lent progressed, my can grew weighty, a burden to carry around. The jingling change made a considerable bit of noise as I walked, announcing, “Here comes a nasty woman.” I collected $47 in 40 days, which was not enough to build a hospital in Peru. Instead, I rounded the sum up a bit and gave it to a fund established in memory of my friend Sam, whom I’d met in a cancer support group. It is paying for wonderful public programs at a library we both loved. Sam, in her great largeness of heart, had a fondness even for my acerbic side, so it seemed fitting.
All those quarters in the can did teach me, however, to curb that side of my personality a bit. Today, I am much slower to utter an unkind remark, though it does happen from time to time. But this only shows that I am a soul in progress. It’s a good incentive, I figure, for God to keep me around for a few more Lents. CD