Lashes & sashes

“Flapjack Tuesday” has generally been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries up here in the Canadas. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day to party before Lent — must surely require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up the household supplies of eggs, milk & butter, & last year’s syrup, & other non-Lenten things. There may also be meat to get rid of, & what better way than by gobbling it all down. And alcohol, in its various permutations. Shrove Tuesday could be a lot of work.

Lent was harder in the old days. Dairy products were off the menu (should the point not yet be grasped). “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors, was more like what we’d now call a very hard fast. And “fast” was starvation. In these northern climes, Lent fell conveniently towards the end of the winter — when we were running out of everything anyway. And the contrast, the vivid truth in the notion, “Drink for tomorrow we die!” — is lost on an age of homogeneity, with neither feasts nor fasts. The days & weeks & years go by in one continuous blur, upbeat as we can make it.

At the Quebec winter carnival, they still wear sometimes the old ceintures fléchées — the colourful woollen “arrow sashes,” in memory of the habitants of yore. In fact it was worn by the men of all classes, in styles not by rank but by region: Charlevoix, L’Assomption, Acadienne. It pulled one’s coat together, against the bitter winter cold; it stiffened one’s back for heavy labour. It was made by the ladies, for their men: in bright gorgeous patterns, by a method of finger weaving the Indians had taught them.

Knot it tightly to one side, & know that you are loved!

In Canada, let us think & pray for them, long gone under the asphalt. On Shrove Tuesday, we raise a toast to them; even now in mammonized Quebec. To them that understood Ash Wednesday. To them that knelt so timid before the Cross. To them that prayed, & perhaps yet pray, for the children of their children on the asphalt here below.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks very little of us. (The State asks far more.) And in my case, for the last time, I am asked to sacrifice anything at all. For next year I will be sixty, & however hale & hearty I might feel myself to be, I will be canonically exempted from any penitential diet. And in the modern way: because of a nice round arbitrary number.

I protest in the same way I did the other day at the Salvation Army thrift store. I bought a book for two dollars & the cashier — a rather pretty young thing — charged me only one-dollar-sixty.

“Why?” I asked, for as a journalist I am apt to ask stupid questions.

“I am giving you the senior citizens discount,” came the glib reply.

“How dare you,” was my unexpressed rejoinder.

Very little is expected of anyone any more. A friend, who has become strangely convinced of the most provocative Roman ecclesiological claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” recently complained of how little his new Church demanded. He parodied this little as, “Please turn up for Mass occasionally, & drop a fiver in the basket. Or a ten if you can afford it.” And in return, immortality is yours, in a happyface heaven you’ll be sharing with the psychos because everyone is beautiful in his own way.

There is paradox in this: when people who have wrestled with their souls in the darkness, & dwelt in anguish under the weight of their own sins, confront the fey modernist lash. They think they have earned the cat o’nine tails, & they get a wet noodle. The paradox is, this increases their pain.

“Shrove Tuesday.” To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance, & receive the Absolution. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. It was not all pancakes, meat, & drink. The lines were long, before the booths on Shrove Tuesday. The men with their caps & their hats in their hands.

The churches (Protestant & Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full in those bad old days, when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been, pitted as they were, often, directly against nature. And the churches will start filling again, when the demands resume. For I will tell gentle reader a great secret I have learnt from a long course of empirical observation. It is that modernists are people, too.

And people do not come to Christ as an “option.” Some had such fortune as to be born into His arms. But for the rest, they come when all their other options have expired. And they come not to argue, but to be told what to do.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée; with love, against the cold, for their heavy labour.