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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

For Me, Lent is About Addition, Not Subtraction; The Meaning of "Forty Days"

Sarah Korf 
For me, Lent has always been about addition rather than subtraction.

I have never fasted during Lent. I have never given up candy. I have never given up a bad habit like swearing or gambling.

When I go without food, I am prone to migraines. My dyslexia and other cognitive challenges worsen so that I find it hard to do my work – writing and teaching.

I try to limit swearing, and I don't gamble, all year round.

I find that when I give up a desirable indulgence like candy, that abstinence endows the candy with new power. The candy suddenly vibrates with the allure of the forbidden; it holds my always tenuous focus for ransom. I'd rather eat a bite of chocolate than not eat a bite of chocolate and obsess all day about the chocolate I miss so badly.

What I do during Lent is I add activities.

I try to pray the rosary every day. This Lent I resolve to be scrupulous about that, and not just try, but really get it done.

I also resolve to say the Stations of the Cross every day.

I love the Stations of the Cross, even though they are a prayer I find so moving I always cry.

I LOVE finding variations of the Stations of the Cross on the web.

I've done this before during lent. Close to the end of the day, in the evening, I find a new variation: the gay Stations of the Cross, the environmental Stations of the Cross, the women's ordination Stations of the Cross

This morning I was scouring the web trying to find a distribution of ashes I could attend. I could not find any and I felt pissed off. I walked to work and as I was about to enter the campus library to meet with my class, I ran into a priest. He handed me a flier and invited me to mass and ash distribution which would occur just as I was getting out of mass. The meeting felt providential.

One of my students had ashes on her forehead. She is African American. I am always touched by African American Catholics, because I am so mindful of the church's resolute rejection of racism.

When too many liberal Protestants were tempted by Scientific Racism, and when millions of atheists and neo-Pagans gave into Scientific Racism wholeheartedly, committing crimes from the installation of a human being, Ota Benga, in the Bronx Zoo as an animal display, right up to Nazism, Catholicism relied on centuries of teaching, going back to Bartolome de las Casas, Sublimus Dei and Francisco de Vitoria, that spelled out Catholicism's utter rejection of racism. I think of Saint Katharine Drexel an American woman who was at the forefront of efforts to educate African-Americans and Native Americans.

I arrived late in mass. I was surprised to see a couple of people I know on campus. I had assumed one, from her last name and the contents of our many emails,to be Jewish. I had assumed another to be a conventional academic Marxist. So much for my assumptions.

I wondered how heavy father's hand was on the ashes. I knew I would not know till I got home and could look in the mirror. When I did arrive home, I was stunned. My forehead is the canvas for a very large, dark cross. No mistaking my affiliation today. I made sure to go after class. I would not report to class with a cross on my forehead. When students ask my religious beliefs, I tell them I will tell them after the semester is over. Proselytizing is not part of my job, and I am scrupulous about not doing so.

I hope for a good Lent. I wish a good Lent to you, as well.

Here's a little trivia item for you. In folklore studies I was taught by scholars Alan Dundes and Amin Sweeney that forty in Middle Eastern cultures doesn't mean forty literally; rather, it means "a lot of." Thus, in Southeast Asian Shadow Play, influenced by Islam, a Middle Eastern religion, heroes shoot arrows through forty palm trees (a lot of palm trees) and collect forty jars of mosquito hearts in order to gain magical power. Thus Lent is forty days, but not really – count them. There are more than forty days in Lent. 

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