Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Former Mackerel Snapper Turned Pagan Looks At Lent

(photo courtesy Maine State Archives)  
" Mackerel Snapper!"It was a silly epaulet, but it still hurt.

I grew up a Roman Catholic in the late 1950s, when being Roman Catholic in a mostly white middle class neighborhood  wasn't the norm. Roman Catholic was someone else-someone mostly Italian, Irish or Polish, whose grandparents still spoke the language of the country of their birth, and who was more than likely from a town of peasants. White middle class kids ate hamburger and chicken, those of us with a little monetary blessing and a little farther down the ladder-especially Roman Catholics of European ancestry-ate  whatever was cheap. Cheap fish was on the top of that list, and mackerel was the least expensive next to sardines. Canned Mackerel was the poorer cousin of Salmon, and a huge chunk of the Roman Catholic population in the US at that time ate mackerel, especially on Friday, a day of sacrificial obligation set a side by the Church.
Friday, in case you forgot how poor you were on the other days, was the day you did without anything that gave you pleasure.At my house, it was the day you ate dry toast or plain oatmeal for breakfast, fasted for lunch, and had mackerel for dinner.

Because mackerel spoils easily and the processed variety was less expensive, we usually ate canned mackerel, which was oily and slightly stronger tasting than canned tuna.It was drained, the bones removed, flaked and mixed with a few left over mashed potatoes, an egg, some diced onion and a dash of chili powder before being rolled in breadcrumbs homemade from the gleanings of a stale loaf. The patties were carefully placed on a plate and allowed to chill for several hours before pan frying them in oil...and they were good, except nobody ever said so because it would mean you were enjoying them and that defeated the purpose of eating ti in the first place. You ate cheap fish patties on Friday to be humble and obedient. God and the Pope didn't allow good little Catholic children to go to McDonald's on Friday until they dreamed up  the Fish Fillet sandwich, and even then that damn piece of artificial cheese product got you into trouble.

When I was growing up, being Catholic was being The Other: your minister was called a priest, couldn't get married and wore a long, black coat and  your worship service was called a Mass and was sung or spoken in a mysterious language (apart from whatever your grandparents were speaking) called Latin. You read the Mass- word for word- from a little  book that everyone had a personal copy of  called a Missal and recited a chant while counting on a string of beads called a rosary. Your parents made you wear an amulet called a scapular, a thin rope which had little pictures of  the Saints, Jesus or Mary on either end and a blessed medal: one photo hung down your front and one down the back, so you were protected coming and going from whatever evil that might have been trying to lure you into temptation... like eating meat on Friday.If you were a girl or woman, you covered your hair-your sinfully prideful hair-with a chapel veil or hat. These were the hallmarks of Roman Catholicism when I was a child, and it was serious business because it all related to a common denominator-the safety of your immortal soul.

Somewhere along the line- when I'd gotten older and began to ask questions about all the gazillion little oddities of the Roman Catholic Church, which always got me into trouble for my lack of belief and  sent to the school chapel so I could contemplate my sins- I figured that maybe I wasn't quite cut out to be a Roman Catholic. I liked the music and the stained glass windows, and the incense smelled great, and at Christmas and Easter there were big parties and everyone got candy,  but being Catholic and eating mackerel was doing absolutely nothing toward helping me figure out my reason for existing in the Universe. There was one time during the year when I did get 'something' out of all of it , and that was during Lent.

Lent is the time of the year when liturgical faith traditions-Catholic, Episcopalians, Anglicans, basically any church which has a rite of Holy Communion-takes a break from the ordinary, eschews comfort and convenience and takes up the yoke of austerity. In the ancient Church, it was the time for self-examination and study for those seeking Baptism. Lent was a period of self-denial. You gave up something pleasurable-like chocolate-for the symbolic 40 days that Jesus had spent in the desert when he was 'finding himself'( and being tempted by Satan the whole time). For a Catholic kid in the 1960s, it meant you read the Bible, went to Mass more often (as if that were possible!), and fasted. Later, as an Episcopalian, it meant taking on something new, like serving a meal at the soup kitchen, or reading spiritually inspired books, or looking deeper into yourself. Lent was a time of repose and regeneration, when everything slowed down and some things stopped altogether for a magical 40 days.

Lent was the time when I first learned about the Place of Deep-Indwelling, the place where the authentic self lives and dwells and calls you to come and sit for a while and watch the candle burn or listen to the bird song and experience it as something sacred. It wasn't until I became a Pagan that I understood what the meaning of a 'Holy Lent' truly was. Being penitential no longer meant being sorry about real and imagined sins, it meant being humbled before Nature and the Universal Divine. It meant taking a walk in the middle of the day to look closer at the budding Spring flowers wasn't a waste of time, it was precious time taken to see. It no longer meant I was a poor, miserable, undeserving creature needing to grovel before the throne of the Almighty for forgiveness, but that I could once again be reminded that I was a wonderful being being co-created by the Great Mystery. Being human wasn't sinful, it is in fact, being Divine because of that which is holy already lives within.

My new, Pagan version of Lent consists of not only self-examination, but focusing on one of the Elements individually to span to the period.  Incidentally, the word Lent is  Teutonic for Spring. It has no liturgical meaning in it's original form other than to name the season. It identifies the time when the earth is reborn, much as we use the now use the word Imbolc. I focus on one of the Elements specifically for a few days, living with it, it in as many forms as I can for that period, and writing down as much as I can about what I'm experiencing. As you can imagine, I journal quite a bit-my personal BOS is half journal and half grimorie.

Earth, for example, is explored by finding a spot to be able to dig up a handful and feel and smell it. I roll it through my fingers and note if it's wet or dry, crumbles, or cakes like clay, and check it for earthworms and grubs or insects. I break a piece off to see how the grass is rooted, examine the fine white and green shoots. I hold it up to my face and inhale it's mustiness or sweetness. I lie down on the earth and feel it's sturdiness, feel myself sinking down to become rooted. I watch the world turn from my place of oneness. When I'm finished, I write,drum, sing, make an offering or create a ritual. It's whatever I'm drawn to do at the moment...and it all goes in my journal for later digestion. In a few days, I do likewise with the other three Elements, adapting my methods to appropriate means to facilitate the experience. I've put thought and planning into how I will do this each year to make my Pagan Lent different,a nd I've never done the exact same thing in the same place twice. I come away from that time relaxed, renewed, and recharged.....reading for the unfolding rebirth of Spring.

And the mackerel patties? I still eat them...they help me to remember where I came from.

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