I was reared Baptist in Catholic New Orleans (well, the Greater New Orleans area). Regardless, I still grew up eating fish every Friday in the Pineview Middle School cafeteria and happily celebrating the very Catholic holiday of Mardi Gras. But unlike my Catholic schoolmates, I never had to give up anything for Lent. For some, being Baptist is kind of like having Lent all the time, but not for me. My mother was always quick to point out that since we were “New Orleans Baptists,” a little known offshoot of the denomination, we could both dance and drink. So I was fascinated by this annual rite of deprivation and suffering, which in middle school usually involved pining for candy. I never really understood Lent’s purpose, even in later in my teens, when friends persuaded me in joining them in giving up chocolate.
According to catholicculture.org, during Lent “the faithful willingly submit to fasting and self-denial in imitation of Our Lord’s forty-day fast in the desert. It is in these dark and still nights, these desert-times, that the soul experiences its greatest growth. There, in the inner arena, the soul battles the world, the flesh and the devil just as Our Lord battled Satan’s triple temptation in the desert.” I can’t say my soul grew much that Lenten season, even though I didn’t cave in for all forty days. The truth is I spent the whole time counting down until I could have chocolate again. Probably not the intended purpose of what should have been a time of reflection. Then on the stroke of midnight on Easter, I hit the all night Shoney’s and dug my spoon into a chocolate sundae. Some penance. I was not alone. Millions give up something for Lent, marking off each day till they get to smoke it, chew it, or drink it again. The most popular renounced indulgences of the flesh include smoking, cussing, chocolate and other sweets. But the Lenten practice that interests me most is giving up the booze. I polled some friends who renounce alcohol in one form or another to explore their reasons and how they handle it.
I called my friend Ted who I know gives up alcohol every year for Lent and asked him why he does it. He replied that in addition to Lent being a reenactment of Christ’s time in the desert, it is also a counter balance to Carnival; whatever one does most excessively during that season should be abstained from during Lent. And since what he does most during Mardi Gras is drink, he gives up alcohol. Also, Ted loves beer specifically and drinking in general. Lent is not meant to be easy and giving up drinking is hard for him. I asked him if he allows himself any “cheat days” (many people take Sunday off) and he said no. Ted gives up alcohol in every form, on every day, no exceptions. Kind of. He noted that if there was a big event like St.Patrick’s Day (which always falls in Lent, who planned that?) or a party a friend has been planning or any kind of event where “it would be awkward if I didn’t partake,” then he may have a few. But I get the sense that even in those circumstances, he wouldn’t go all-out as he did during Carnival (or much of the rest of the year.)
This year, Molly, who lives in L.A., gave up alcohol Mondays through Thursdays, keeping her sober while alone, but able to join friends for cocktails on the weekends. She also allowed herself another out during the entire 10 days in early April when she is visiting New Orleans, during which she can drink with impunity. She admitted that she had no illusions about keeping her Lenten promise while here in New Orleans and I agree with her. There’s too much visiting with friends and too many crawfish boils calling out for an accompaniment of beer. Speaking of beer, Brian gave that up for Lent, though he allowed himself alternative alcohol. He was unhappy with his recent pairing of wine with crawfish at a crawfish boil and agreed that champagne might have been a better substitute. When I ran into him last Sunday, he was drinking something called Four Loko, a malt beverage/energy drink, which I declined to sample but one that I am sure is, in every way imaginable, worse for your body than beer. Which is a kind of suffering, I suppose. On St. Patrick’s Day, Brian just gave up Lent. A wise move, though I think there is a version of Four Loko which is green and could have been the perfect beverage for the day.
At the other end of the spectrum are my friends Dale and Brooke, a couple who are so opposed to the idea of Lenten deprivation that for the entire forty day period they have vowed to give up mixers entirely. They are allowing themselves water, as in “whiskey and water.” Ice is also not a mixer. Let the suffering commence.
Ted’s caveat, as well as the scripted plans of Molly and Brian, piqued my interest, not because they merely allow each person some wiggle room in which to drink. It is the circumstances in which Ted, Molly and even Brian allow themselves to join others in celebration. This need to have an out is an unavoidable nod to the powers alcohol has in fueling revelry joined with camaraderie. Finding a way to keep one’s Lent while still being social is a common thread in many alcohol-based Lenten promises here in New Orleans and around the country as well, I imagine. And frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with that. If you will pardon my doctrinal musings, Christ was a man who knew something about the suffering in the world. And while I believe he wanted us to be aware of the suffering of others (and probably worry less about his own), I think he also would support embracing celebration and friendship whenever we have the opportunity to do so. The moments of toasting together and sharing from the flowing bowl are valid ties of friendship and community, and to excise them from your life entirely, even for just 40 days, seems to me excessive. I feel certain he would agree with me. After all, Christ didn’t merely turn water into wine. He did so at a wedding. A feast. A celebration. Now there’s a Lenten image to savor. With a drink.