Except for the fact that she is a Catholic and I am an atheist, Mary and I are practically the same person. We’re both stay-at-home writers. We both love to cook and eat, and we both wish we didn’t love to eat quite so much. We both have three children who are absolutely perfect as soon as they’re sleeping and we have a drink in our hand. I mean, I’m a martini girl and she’s more about the red wine, but I try to be open-minded.
Mary posted on Facebook the other day that she was getting excited for Lent, and as usual, I totally got it. Lent is like spring cleaning for the soul, and I’m all for spring cleaning that doesn’t involve actual housework. I do what I can with New Year’s resolutions, but the duration of those self-improvements (forever!) is too long: you’re doomed to fail. But forty days? I could be a better person for forty days . . .
So I envy Mary her season of fasting and good works, especially because I know at her house it will be serious. Not self-serious and humorless, just the real deal. Mary does nothing by rote: she thinks about ways to make each ritual resonate. And when she writes on her blog about, say, figuring out what to give up for Lent, since she doesn’t eat junk food anyway, and she’s practically a vegan for her older daughter’s sake, I always think, This is how I would be if I were religious.
Religions have these built-in days—or entire seasons—whose purpose is to snap you to attention, to make you mindful of your life. I love mindful! I want a season like that! And I could have one so easily, if I embraced the religion that’s been handed to me. Passover is Judaism’s spring cleaning season, and at some point every April, I find myself at my in-laws’ table for Seder, dreaming about how I would observe the holiday if I were Jewish in belief and not just name.
Oh, how thoughtfully I would Jew! Forget eating boxes of matzoh and drinking quarts of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda for a week. Instead the kids and I would brainstorm a way of eating that truly made us feel like we were under stress as runaway slaves. We would eat only food we could make from scratch in 10 minutes or less. Or only food from the freezer—no grocery shopping allowed. Or only food we could buy from gas stations, as if we had to escape through the desert in our minivan (now that would be an Odyssey . . .).
The “we” in this riff is part of the fantasy: the idea that the kids enthusiastically join in regular bouts of aggressive self-betterment. In real life they would probably be as enthusiastic as they are about the other kind of spring cleaning. (Me: Why are you sitting down? Child: I cleaned the coffee table. Me: Is the room clean? Is the house clean? YOU MAY NOT SIT DOWN UNTIL THE HOUSE IS CLEAN!)
I know for a fact that Noah, my eldest, does not, um, notice the mess in the house, figuratively speaking. As we were approaching Yom Kippur last year, he said casually, “I think I’ll fast on Wednesday.”
“Oh, really? Why?” This is the child, remember, who was flirting with the idea of a bar mitzvah. So I wondered where we were on the religiometer.
“Well aren’t we going to a break-the-fast at Grandpa’s?” (after the sun sets on the Day of Atonement, the most self-reflective day of the year).
“Well, I want to be really hungry.”
“Are you also going to be thinking about all the ways you could try to be better this year? ’Cause that’s kind of the point.”
“Nah, I’m not doin’ that.”
Can you hear the disdainful teenager? Can you feel the frustrated mom’s sudden need for a martini? It’s not that I want him to be religious, it’s that I don’t want him to do the outer part without the inner part, the ritual without the meaning.
But of course that’s what I want, too, when I dream of doing Passover for real, or envy Mary her Lent. Oh, I want the inner part all right, but I don’t want the core: I want meaningful living without worship of God.
Sure—employing my nimblest interpretive skills, I could use the Torah—its prescribed fasts and celebrations, its seasons of repentance and its rituals—to express my own morality, to help push myself and pull my family toward the kind of people we should be. I certainly know nonbelieving Jews who do that. But where’s the line between aggressive interpretation and misreading? I can make Passover all about oppression and liberation, quote Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., at my Seder, but only if I studiously ignore the source text. The Book of Exodus is a fiercely sectarian celebration of a cruel and capricious God. Read it for what it is—and not for what you want it to be—and you won’t even be certain that “We Shall Overcome,” much less be in the mood to sing it.
Lent rests on three pillars: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. No matter how creative Mary gets with her Lenten experiments, she’s always guided by the Catholic catechism (on which she has literally written the book). She means what she says and what she does—and not just metaphorically, and not just the taking-a-break-from-red-wine and trying-to-be-a-better-person parts. The closer-to-God part.
Living mindfully, for me, can’t start with God. And therefore it can’t start with Lent or Passover or Ramadan or any other helpful, ready-made framework the world’s religions have created. It has to start with giving them up. Then I have to decide— on my own—what to do about the martinis.