fat tuesday meets compunction already in progress

Posted by on February 21, 2007

notre dame grotto

Yesterday evening was spiritually disjointed in a way that is becoming familiar. Being at Notre Dame, it makes sense that most of our friends are Catholic. Therefore when we accepted an invitation to a get-together at the house of our friends Mike and Violet, I might have remembered that it was actually a party for Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, and Lent’s beginning in the Catholic Church. And fat was indeed served. I kept wondering why all of these normally frugal eaters, veritable champions for simplicity of lifestyle and social responsibility, were whipping out, in a manner implying a rare break from the norm, a variety of imported cheeses, fruity beers, juicy olives, quiche, jumbalaya (sp?), and finally king’s cake with cream cheese icing. I just came out of a coma; lent is over, and it’s Pascha!! No. It was Fat Tuesday. The only problem is that we were already two days into Orthodox Lent, and should probably be eating boiled potatoes…or something. Oh well. As usual, I say oh well.

The party was good-clean-fun. Some friends who were at Notre Dame last year but had since moved back to New Orleans were back in town with their new baby. There were babies, joking, scrabble, various cooks in the kitchen, and platters of salty things. “I’m nursing anyway, so I’m not exactly doing the fast formally,” I told myself. At the dinner table the conversation was exuberent. Somehow “your mamma’s so fat jokes” came up as topic. Anyone who attended public schools would be able to contribute something to such a conversation. Liz, however, puzzled us all by throwing out, “Your mamma’s so fat she ate skittles and a rainbow came out.” What? We all decided she was missing some key element to the logic of that one. Mike said it was like saying: “Your mamma’s so fat, she doesn’t need to mow the lawn because she has blades on her feet and just walks across it.” I suppose you woulda-hadda-been-there, but I was laughing hilariously. St John Climacus would surely not approve.

We left the party early because the Lollars, who moved here from the seminary last July, had invited us to join them in saying the Canon of St Andrew of Crete, the prayers that are said on the first Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday of Lent in the Orthodox Church. These were some of my favorite services at the seminary, like listening to a series of short stories sung primarily by the basey voices of the male choir and a cluster of black-robed priests. Each failure in the Old and New Testaments is reviewed (which is why it takes three nights). The prayers are punctuated with, “Oh my soul, you are worse than [said character], for you have [committed an even worse act] by [neglecting to love God in some specific way that is similar to said character]. It is very poetic, very creative, beautiful, and sobering.

When we got to Deacon Joshua’s house, all was quiet, as their three children were already in bed. Esme was also asleep in her car seat and I set her down in a dark room downstairs with their baby moniter on. We put on coats and hats and crept through their snowy backyard into their carport, which is newly-built, with clean wood beams inside. Deacon Joshua is not going to use it as a carport, but is converting it into a chapel, which is quite useful, since we all go to church one hour away and simply can’t go that often. After candles were lit inside, we began the prayers; we could see our breath in the cold air. It was hard to get in touch with the prayers; I kept thinking about funny things said at dinner even as my toes got cold. My body was standing in a frosty, humble family chapel on the second day of Lent. I was trying to say words to “my soul” about its destitution. But my heart, mind and soul were still at a Fat Tuesday party, laughing at something someone said.

This was all just happenstance and not really significant, but it reminded me of how I often feel, when my feeble attempts to live according to the liturgical calendar turn into a fiasco involving the pull of other relationships. Neither mine nor Jeff’s parents are Orthodox. While at Jeff’s parents’ house before Christmas, for example, we would not have had a snowball’s chance in a Southern Baptist parking lot of keeping the fast. Not that we’re champion fasters in the best of times, by any means, but still, the dilemma is ever-present. I often feel that if Jeff and I wanted to be “turbo-Orthodox”, it would mean a significant, deliberate limiting of many relationships, particularly family, and particularly on holidays, which is basically impossible, and of course undesirable and unthinkable. In the meantime, holidays continue to feel schizophrenic, and it is no one’s fault that I can see. As far as I can tell, this is just the way it is when you convert to Orthodoxy.

During Forgiveness Vespers, we toted Esme around with us as we bowed and asked forgiveness of each person at church. Her eyes were alight and she seemed delighted with this game. I thought about how different her life will be as she cycles through these services year after year and they imprint themselves on her upbringing. This may be premature, but if she keeps the faith and I live long enough, she will get to spend holidays with parents who share the same perspectives, the same traditions. I’m glad she’ll have that..and I’m glad I’ll have that too.