So, hi. I’m Hattie, I was raised Catholic, and I still kinda am Catholic. I’m also a liberal Democrat. I’ll wait for the excessive gasping and swooning to subside. (Ophelia, fetch the smelling salts!) Being a liberal Catholic doesn’t involve quite as much cognitive dissonance as you may think. At least, not any more than most of us have as we carry out our lives. Who among us, liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, agrees with everything our respective governments do? And yet you still live in that country for reasons both frivolous and profound, but perhaps most of all because it’s your home.
Anyway, before I go too far down that particular rabbit hole (though I’d be happy to discuss in the comments!), the point of this post: today is Fat Tuesday. Many cultures have celebrations with different names, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival. While in the U.S. it’s associated with the bead-throwing, breast-baring revelry that takes place in New Orleans, there are various festivals that take around the world. The original purpose of these celebrations was essentially to get your gluttony on before the fasting and atonement of Lent, which begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday.
Lent is generally a time for penance, self-denial and charitable giving. Even if your life and upbringing hasn’t been Catholic or Christian, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “giving something up for Lent.” If not, check out someecards.com, which has an entire section of cards mocking Lent. I’m not saying go there and be offended; those cards are actually pretty funny. This one is my favorite. The idea of Lent is to perform various forms of self-sacrifice, and giving something up is only one part of it.
As I said, Ash Wednesday is the kickoff, and “Good Catholics” are supposed to go to church, meditate on the fact that they’re going to die, and get symbolic ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of a cross. I have a friend who refers to Ash Wednesday as Catholic Identification Day, and deservedly so. Many Catholics (and applicable Protestants) who walk into church on Ash Wednesday for the first time since Christmas to get ashes are perhaps a little disingenuous about their pursuit of their faith.
In truth, year after year I’ve found that the sermon at Ash Wednesday mass addresses this very issue. It’s kind of funny, the priest is always like “Hey guys, where are you the rest of the year? Who do you think you’re fooling?” He’ll speak of the person who goes to church and makes a big deal about the fact that they’re there, versus the person who devoutly prays in the privacy of their own home or heart.
I guess that kind of touches on my own relationship with my Catholicism. Not to say that I’ve never hurt my brain performing the mental acrobatics necessary to be at peace with my faith, but it generally works for me. I’ve decided that I’m responsible for my own practice of my religion. If I consider myself Catholic ““ if being Catholic is an important part of my life ““ that transcends anyone’s ability to deny it. I know that I believe in my religion, and as far as I’m concerned, the fact that I reject some of the Church’s teachings doesn’t make me a Bad Catholic or worse, not Catholic at all.
Also, have to admit that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday does result in the unique experience of walking around with essentially a big neon HI I’M CATHOLIC sign on your forehead. Unlike in some other religions, there’s generally nothing in the course of your day-to-day life as a Catholic or Christian to identify you as such. Sure, you could wear a cross necklace or what have you, but that’s about it. It’s kind of a weird feeling to get stared at on public transit, and you can see people’s minds working through it: “Oh, that girl has something on her forehead “¦ should I tell her about it? “¦ Wait, isn’t today that day all the Catholics put dirt on their heads? … Why do they do that anyway? … Maybe I’ll look it up on my phone once we’re out of the tunnel.”
So yeah, tomorrow I plan to go to church, set that neon sign in its rightful place, and get to sacrificin’. I’m giving up chocolate as my superficial sacrifice, and I have some other more personal plans as well. As long as I can remember to do so, I’ll avoid meat and gluttony on the appropriate days. It’s not just for show, either. I do it every year and I see it as an opportunity to try and get closer with a sometimes-tricky part of myself. And that’s what matters to me.