Contra mundum

“Flapjack Tuesday” has been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries in the Canadas, up here. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day, before Lent — is assumed to require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up the household supplies of eggs, milk, butter; last year’s syrup, and other non-Lenten things. Sausages come to mind; and alcohol, in its various permutations.

Dairy was going off the menu, should the point not yet be grasped. “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors down the centuries, was more like what we’d call a hard fast; a “fast” was total. 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, but blueberries from Chile. Our days and weeks and years go by in one continuous upbeat blur, until each, alone, comes to his disaster.

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

Knot it tightly to one side, and know that you are loved, and relied on!

But they are ours to remember, who understood Ash Wednesday. Who knelt so timid before the Cross; and waited so humbly to be shriven; the women with their clutches of young, the burly men with caps in their hands. Ours to remember them that prayed, and I believe pray still, for the wayward children of children of children riding the asphalt here below.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks little. (The State asks far, far more.) And now I have grown so old (past sixty!) that I am canonically exempted from any penitential diet.

Little is expected of anyone. A friend, who became convinced of Roman ecclesiological claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” complains of how little. “Please turn up for Mass sometimes, and drop a fiver in the basket.” And in return, a smileyface heaven will be yours to share, with the pornographers and the psychos, because “everyone is beautiful in his own way.”

To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance, then in the name of Christ, Absolved. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. People who have wrestled with their souls in darkness, and dwelt in anguish under this weight, today are most likely to receive in their churches a quick collective gumdrop mercy. Heavily they come, and sadly walk away.

The churches (Protestant and Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full, back when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been — pitted, as once, 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. All men need Christ.

They do not come to Him as an “option.” A tiny few seem almost born into His arms; many more because they are defeated, and all other options have expired. And those do not come to have their heads patted.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée; with the toughest Love, against the winter storm. Inflame their hearts for the battle, and set their minds to the Victory against: the world, the flesh, and the devil.