St. Benedict decreed Lent was a literary occasion when a monk should read a book straight through.
Lent was never supposed to be about giving up your bad habits. If you have bad habits, why wait for Lent to give them up? Easter, of course, should not be your chance to take up your old and beloved bad habits.
The traditional formula for Lent is prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each of these three is understood as a way of achieving justice. Prayer is justice because it puts you in line with God. Fasting is justice to yourself — not because you don't deserve food, but because a fast ensures that you eat to live, not the other way round. Almsgiving is justice to your neighbour.
In the sixth century, St. Benedict conceived of Lent as a largely literary occasion. The Rule of St. Benedict instructs that each monk should be given a book from the library at the beginning of Lent, and that the monks should read them straight through from the beginning.
This was not about self-denial. Books in the sixth century were luxury items almost no one could afford. Most Europeans in the sixth century could only dream of spending hours every day just reading.
We Catholics take a long time getting past childhood Lents of heroic self-denial, trying to achieve holiness and win God's approval on our own terms.
Eventually we discover the sort of Lent which accepts human weakness. Rather than casting ourselves as saviours of our own souls, we learn to spend those 40 days shaping our lives, our minds and our hearts into the form of hope.
Our hope is in Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us. Those who can't accept their own human weakness will have trouble claiming salvation from a God who embraced human weakness even unto death on a cross.
It's easy to throw around theological formulations, harder to live a life.
I spoke recently to three residents of the Cardinal Ambrozic Houses of Providence in Toronto about their earliest memories of Lent. They were fond memories, recalled with equal parts of wisdom and humour. In fact, it may be that wisdom is humour and vice-versa.
Jack Scriven remembers growing up in County Cork, Ireland.
"Really, we never did fast," said the 93-year-old Scriven. "Because really, we never did get enough food anyway."
They lived on soda bread, cabbage and potatoes all year long, but Lent was still important.
"You wouldn't eat meat on a Friday, but meat was a rarity anyway," said Scriven.
People suffered normally, but then embraced voluntary suffering when the Church asked for it. By choosing to suffer, they gave the ordinary deprivation and limitations of their lives meaning.
Scriven remembers his parents fasting every Sunday from midnight until after the 8:30 a.m. Mass. That meant rising to feed and milk the cows and other chores, then walking the muddy road to church, all without even a glass of water.
Scriven also remembers how boys would tease girls who were still unmarried by Ash Wednesday — telling them they were on the Skellig List.
Legend had it that monks on the rocky Skellig Islands had refused to accept the Gregorian calendar. Since couples couldn't marry during Lent, they might slip away to Skellig to marry, because on the islands Lent would be celebrated a few weeks later.
"It was a different world to what it is today," said Scriven.
Scriven also remembers the fierce seven-day retreats travelling Augustinians would preach during Lent.
"They would put the fear of God into us. We were bad people," said Scriven.
The boys, of course, were waiting for the Thursday sermon, he said.
"Thursday was the day of sex. The boys loved that."
In 1947 Scriven came to Canada, landed a good job keeping track of trades for a trust company, married the teller in the next cage and helped her raise three boys and a girl. Bernadette Foote, his bride, died two years ago, and Scriven carries on with her memory.
Father Wilfrid McAneney is a Toronto boy who got to see the world. He studied at the Grand Séminaire in Laval, Quebec. He has visited China and the Philippines.
For two years he was a school teacher and missionary in Washington State. For 10 years he taught high school in Toronto and spent summers in France, ministering in parishes in Tours and Paris and perfecting his French.
The 84-year-old priest remembers his childhood Lents, giving up candies and staying away from the Saturday afternoon movies. But the experience of Lent deepened for McAneney at St. Augustine's Seminary.
"The whole atmosphere was religious," he said.
Among the seminarians there was a shared experience of penitential, Lenten practices, combined with spiritual direction from priests on the seminary faculty.
"I was like an athlete with coaches on my back all the time," he said.
The early 1950s were a time of revelation and growth. After his 1954 ordination, McAneney was always anxious to share what he had learned in those seminary Lents.
"I tried to immerse my parish in that atmosphere," he said.
There comes a time for a more mature Lent.
"You start thinking about more of what Christ says," said McAneney.
Another Toronto boy, 85-year-old Basil Daniels, has pleasant memories of his childhood Lents.
"We didn't do a whole heck of a lot," he said. "Give up candy, stop going to shows."
Daniels' memories are of how people tried, even if they didn't always succeed.
"We tried to go to Mass every day during Lent," he said. "I know we did it once."
The youngest of six, with a 10-year gap between him and his next brother, Daniels was mostly raised by his sister.
His first marriage didn't work out, though he and Helen remain friends to this day. His second wife, Grace, had been a religious sister in Nova Scotia but was dismissed for health reasons. They later discovered she was allergic to seafood.
Together Grace and Basil raised four boys. "All pretty good boys," said Daniels.
Grace died five years ago. Basil is a happy man. He kept trying, in Lent and in life.
Our best Lents are the ones that teach us how to live. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving - the daily discipline of justice - is bound to inject some wisdom into our lives. If we are wise enough, we will one day be as happy as Basil, Wilfrid and Jack.