If you're a Catholic, you traditionally give up something for Lent. That usually means comfort food, just at the time of year when you need comfort most, especially from food. So it's goodbye, chocolate, goodbye, Cheez Whiz nachos. Me, I give up meat, and also cream in my coffee. That means that I spend the entire 40 days of Lent (and, hey--it's actually longer than 40 days, because Sundays aren't counted) starving and thinking about steaks and latte. As the weeks pass, the steaks get thicker, the latte more foamy. I can always slip inside a church for distraction. That's great. No flowers, a bare altar, dirges for hymns. It's the season of penance. The priest wears depressing dark-purple vestments. He says a prayer that thanks God for "this season of joy." What joy? There are only two fun things about Lent. One is Mardi Gras. The other is checking out the foreheads of people at your job on Ash Wednesday to see whether they got ashes at the church that morning ("I didn't know you were a Catholic!"). Lent is bad now, but it was even worse when I was a child. Every year my parents decided that we should all, as a family, give up sweets for Lent. That was easy for them, as they weren't dessert people, and they had no intention of giving up their own Fifties-adult equivalent of the Snickers bar, the 6 p.m. martini. The Lenten days crawled along minute by minute, and my sisters and I writhed in misery. In our bureau drawers we hoarded stale cookies and candies and doughnuts that friends or neighbors might give us as we waited for the witching hour: 12 noon on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, which, back in those pre-Vatican II says, was when Lent officially ended. At our Catholic parochial school, Lenten observances were even grimmer than at home. We had to go to Mass every day, not just on Sunday. That meant hundreds of squirming, uniform-clad girls in beanies crammed into the front rows of our parish church every Lenten weekday, as nuns stalked the aisles making sure that no child rested her elbows on the pew ahead while kneeling.
At my Catholic girls' high school, the nuns ratcheted up the Lenten misery even higher, with the annual three-day Lenten retreat. Classes were suspended, and we had to observe complete silence, praying, meditating, and listening to harangues about our virtue from an uncomfortable-looking local priest who had clearly been dragooned into the operation against his will. We had to do "spiritual reading," checking out an appropriate book from the school library. I usually managed to do my reading in the form of a pious novel: Cardinal Wiseman's "Fabiola," about early Christian virgins in Rome, and one year, a book called "The Reluctant Vestal," which wasn't about early Christians but which I managed to sneak past the school librarian because it was about virgins in Rome. I found a quiet spot on campus to read about the gorgeous vestal and her senator-boyfriend who was faithfully waiting it out for her years of vestal-dom to be up.
Now, of course, I don't have to go on a three-day silent retreat or do without doughnuts during Lent unless I want to. I could go on a three-day screaming orgy during Lent if that were my choice. But I don't--and that's because if there weren't a Lent every year, I'd miss it. I would miss the strictures of a season of penance that reminds me, not just that life is not all merriment, but that I actually have things for which to do penance. And during Lent, at its very end, is Holy Week, with its solemn and beautiful liturgy that reenacts the time when Christ did penance, too, for us, and for our sins. After that is Easter, when we live again in Christ's resurrection, in the flowers of warm spring and the white light. I hate Lent--it's perfectly awful--but it always brings joy.