An odd thing happened to us this year: we accidentally scheduled our roughly-yearly family winter vacation to coincide with the start of Lent.
Technically, there's nothing wrong with this, but it does feel a little bit weird. I am blogging this on Fat Tuesday evening from a charming but wobbly little breakfast table in the kitchen of a ski-vacation condominium that is literally larger than my house, with more yard.
(This is one of the side benefits of deliberately living in a smaller-footprint home: camper cabins, vacation condos, even hotel rooms sometimes feel decadently luxurious.)
On the other side of the great room my three oldest children are playing cards with my husband's parents, who joined us in Montana for a week in the mountains. Mark booked the condo "the same week as last year," remembering the perfect snow conditions and empty trails, and forgetting that Easter is a moveable feast and consequently that Ash Wednesday is a moveable fast. I don't know that we would have done it differently anyway; we have little flexibility in travel plans sometimes, now that business travel has stepped up so much for him, and since we planned to coordinate with the grandparents' schedule too.
I think it worked out, though. Mark and I are the only ones of an age that binds us to the fasting obligation, so nobody else is affected. I can't possibly do any vigorous skiing and touring -- neither of which are necessary duties -- and still keep a meaningful fast. Therefore I must fast from those activities, too, but I don't want to put a damper on the rest of the family. I volunteered to stay in the condo and take care of our 3-year-old, freeing everybody else to do something less toddler-friendly.
Unlike me, Mark can manage outdoor activities and fasting -- his body appears to be perfectly happy to switch over to burning itself for fuel any time he feels like going on a climbing tour, living on the occasional bolus of chocolate-espresso flavored energy gel. So tomorrow, the rest of the family will all drive down to Yellowstone for a snow-coach tour, and I will cocoon with my littlest guy.
I am a little bummed that we won't manage to get to a service with the distribution of ashes, but I have my breviary; I will deal.
I learned over the past few Lents, after my weight loss and after reconfiguring my eating habits, that the "one full meal and two smaller meals that don't add up to a full meal" formula messes with my head too much. (And it's kind of a made-up guideline anyway; that formula doesn't appear in canon law.) It messes with my head because I usually eat that way: my breakfast, lunch and snacks generally add up to less than my dinner. So I switched to having just the one meal in late afternoon, and the rest of the day I sip vegetable broth and hot, milky coffee as needed. As far as I can tell, the law of fasting allows for one meal, and it allows for liquids of any kind, and that is enough to keep my blood sugar to a level where I can, at least, care for my children.
(But not where I can go on a snow-coach tour with my children in Yellowstone National Park.)
So I am going to stay back with one child, and make a pot of soup to feed the family when they return tomorrow evening, but I will probably have mine in the afternoon. And I am going to start a pot of vegetable stock in the morning, to simmer reassuringly all day. And I am going to set an alarm, and pray the Hours, and read stories to the little one who stays with me, and ponder the welcome absurdity of ski-in/ski-out penitence with a hot tub and concierge service, and enjoy some solitude. The boom of the avalanche control teams setting off explosions on the ridge will have to stand in for bells, but I see no reason why I cannot make a sort of retreat anyway.
And if it's possible here, it's possible anywhere.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit. A humble and contrite heart you will not spurn.
Rend your hearts, not your garments.
Wherever we are -- even in the lap of luxury, in the midst of riches beyond the reach of most human beings, in the comfortable stability of good health and good friendships and good marriage and good family -- wherever we are, we can still crave change within, and we can begin it from the very center. Sometimes it makes sense to transform from the outside in: to wear the ashes, and hope that they soak into the soul. Other times, we have to transform from the inside out: to look like nothing has changed, smooth and clear and implacable as ever, accepting a burden that no one else can see; but still to be changed interiorly, a scrap of flesh born, liberated, from the heart of the stone.