Lillian Alford Patterson


Although I spent the first twelve years of my life as a practicing Episcopalian, my memories of the Lenten season are sparse. There is a faint recollection of my mother lighting candles (so similar to the ones we lit for Advent just a few months before)—which stood proudly in the center of the dining room table, much to my father’s (an actively non-religious individual) chagrin—each Sunday of Lent.  The year my mother allowed me to light one of the candles, carefully, with the already lit wick of another is particularly prevalent in memory.

            This ritual, the lighting of the five purple or pink candles, and one white on Easter Sunday, must have been the only one I cared for because it is the only one I have any real memory of. I suppose there are glimpses of the church service on Easter Sunday, and perhaps the smudged cross on my forehead five weeks before on ash Wednesday, but I have no recollection of foregoing anything, or of depriving myself of any indulgence.

            In its most original manifestation, the rituals of Lent were an act of physical discipline; fasting and forgoing luxuries, and an act of spiritual discipline; a daily devotional or the observation of the stages of the cross to bring the disciple close to God. All of this to acknowledge Christ’s forty day journey into the desert.

            My mother would often use the period of time as a post holiday cleansing. After the rich desserts of the Christmas season, the meats drenched with flour gravy, the drinking, and little bites of sweets that just seem to appear in thin air during the weeks between that third Thursday in November and January first; my mother would ditch the chocolate, or drop the alcohol.

            These actions, I always saw as an inner cleansing; a washing out of the body that would eventually make its way to the skin, akin to a baptism done backwards. I always admired my mother’s determination during those five weeks. She seemed to thrive in her self-inflicted deprivation, but I never developed the same discipline and thus, have never been one to participate in foregoing of pleasure during, specifically, the five weeks of Lent.

            Yet, I have always found pleasure in the idea of cleansing the body, of allowing it a chance for rejuvenation each year and in a city like New Orleans, where the holidays and its many indulgences, extend well into February, it is welcomed with arms wide.

            In the weeks since Fat Tuesday, our final day of gorging, and Ash Wednesday many of my friends have been forgoing not just one indulgence, but many. Some have given up sugar entirely, consuming only lean proteins and vegetables. Others are using the period of five weeks to try, once more, to kick the cigarettes.

            Even I, subconsciously, have begun partaking in my own acts of ritual cleansing; ones, which have fallen by the wayside during the winter months.

            The thought came to me that, perhaps, we all see this time as a moment to clean ourselves. Some of us from a sense of religiosity, some to shed the weight of colder months, some to allow the body simply to renew, and some in preparation for spring.

            As the bright fuchsia azaleas spring forward and the electric green buds peak out of grayed branches, there is a sense of change in our natural surroundings that seems to push our bodies towards the same metamorphosis.

            I can feel it in myself. It is in the shedding of layers, allowing bits of skin hidden for months to see sunlight again. It is in my consumption; the heavy starches for winter warmth given up for variegated spring greens.

            My refrigerator is suddenly filled with all things green. I cannot seem to get enough, and it is my mission not to waste a single bit of it. I am making salads heaped with blueberries and marigolds picked from a relative’s garden. I am craving the perfect softness of tomato sandwiches. I can smell that wonderful earthy heat that arrives with each spring in New Orleans.

            I am suddenly determined to waste nothing. Bananas left-too-long bake with flour to become a sugar free bread for a friend down the street. An over abundance of green beans, okra, or cucumber are ready for pickling jars. I know, these are things we do to preserve our food through the colder months. But, it is part of my spring ritual, to keep things alive and wanted as the season moves onward.

            This vivacity is everywhere.

            I can see it in the movement of the city; many folks peddling their bicycles, baskets filled to the brim with produce, couples taking long walks on the Bayou in the evening to soak up the last bit of day’s warmth.

            Whether we wish to be or not, we are all part of the cleansing of the seasons. Whether we cleanse to acknowledge our faith or to slouch off the winter months, we all seem to take on our own rituals and cleansings as we allow ourselves to evolve into spring. Our habits change as the buds spring forward. We may not acknowledge this, but it is part of our natural ritual, our habit of living each year.