Notes & Essays

What I Gave Up For Lent Was Lent Itself

The last words my mother said to me were simple: 'I hope one day you will go back to God."
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On the first day of Lent this year there was fried bangus in the office pantry, the kind my mom used to always have for Ash Wednesday dinner. She ate the fish carefully, picking the endless bones from her mouth with her hands, the ashen cross still clear on her forehead. After dinner, she would go to the dark living room, pull the chain switch on a pale, sickly incandescent lamp, and read one of her religious books—a habit she kept up until she died.

I haven’t had ash on my forehead for a very long time. Still, the rules and reasons of Lent were burned to the inside of my brain: 40 days of no meat on Fridays and holy days of obligation, plus fasting, too, after you hit a certain age. The Catholicism I’d grown up with was algebraic. The long additive tail of sin always needed to be balanced with heartfelt atonement, and Lent was your yearly reminder to do the math. 

The Catholicism I’d grown up with was algebraic. The long additive tail of sin always needed to be balanced with heartfelt atonement, and Lent was your yearly reminder to do the math.

At our school, there were no priests running the faculty, but we were Catholic in all but name. To honor the mother of God we attended mass every first Friday, where I was sometimes the server, or sometimes, the scripture reader. The feast of Corpus Christi was always a big deal; under the blazing day, we knelt down on the school driveway as the monstrance—a sun-shaped container, big as its name suggested, with a piece of communion host inside, a piece of the body of Christ—was paraded across the grounds. When the mass was done you could pull up your pants and see the marks left by the concrete on your knees.

At religion class, we peppered our teacher with dozens of technical questions about Lent. Did eggs count as meat? When you’re fasting in Lent, what counts as “one big meal”? Is it really a sacrifice if you like eating fish? What’s harder, Lent or Ramadan? We hit him with some real tough ones, too. If God was all-powerful, could he make a straight circle? Could Jesus sit down on a chair, brace his hands by the seat, and by the sheer godly power of his biceps lift himself up in the air?

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To keep me godly, my mother bought colorful, illustrated storybooks of Bernadette Soubirous, or Juan Diego, the Nahuatl peasant of Guadalupe in Mexico, or the three little shepherd children of Fatima at Portugal—basically, people the Virgin Mary had visited to rebuke or prophesy or, occasionally, reveal the toasted vistas of hell. I got a morbid thrill from reading about all their apocalyptic prophecies, and wondered about what world-ending revelation was contained in the long-suppressed “third secret of Fatima”. (It was later published, to anticlimactic disappointment, just as I was about to enter college.)

At 10 years old, those Portuguese pastorinhos were wearing penitential ropes and chatting with the mother of God; me, I daydreamed about computer games as the mumbling of the rosary cast a dusky, trance-like haze.

On TV or the radio we were visited by Marian apparitions of our own. “I ask every Filipino family,” the Virgin Mary would say in commercials that played in between Bioman or Shaider, “please...pray the rosary.” It paid to be diligent in your rosaries. As an unofficial church witticism goes, “When Jesus closes the door, his mother opens a window.” Not saying the rosary, as the Fatima apparition seemed to point out, leads to stuff like communism and World War II and assassination attempts on the pope. Better to be safe than sorry.

Our mom always led the daily rosary, reciting in the car on our way home from school. She gave us our own rosaries, just like the three Fatima kids, and expected us to follow along. I tried my best. At 10 years old, those Portuguese pastorinhos were wearing penitential ropes and chatting with the mother of God; me, I daydreamed about computer games as the mumbling of the rosary cast a dusky, trance-like haze.

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One time after school, as I wandered around the grounds waiting for our dad to pick us up, I remembered something about St. Bernadette Soubirous. At Lourdes in France she saw the Virgin Mary 18 times. On the ninth visit, the apparition told her to dig a small hole on the earth and eat some grass. Bending down, I did the same.

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When the authorities were questioning the teenage Bernadette about that, one of them said that “the idea of eating grass does not seem worthy of the holy virgin.” She replied: “We enjoy eating salad.” I was young, and it all happened so long ago, but it was definitely no salad. The taste clogged up my throat, and I could only manage a few blades. For the souls in purgatory I stopped myself from spitting them out; for myself I didn’t go for seconds. Clearly, St. Bernadette was made of sterner religious iron than me.

For the souls in purgatory I stopped myself from spitting [grass] out; for myself I didn’t go for seconds. Clearly, St. Bernadette was made of sterner religious iron than me.

To the end of her life my mom clung tirelessly to the Lord. Throughout the long procession of cures and diagnoses she prayed for a miracle. When she realized that there was no more hope, she told us—her breath labored, her frame eaten by the cancer—that she wanted to die on a feast day, a holy day. Her wish wouldn’t be granted. She died on a simple Friday, shortly after midnight. I ran to her a room a few minutes after she passed. The figure lying on the bed was no longer my mother.

The last words she ever said to me were simple: “I hope one day you will go back to God.”

A couple of months after the funeral I attended a big Javanese wedding in Bali. The bride was an acquaintance of mine, and she flew in weeks ahead to prepare for the Hindu rituals. On the day itself, it seemed the entire town of Ubud was invited to the ceremony. Dressed in a sarong and T-shirt, a peci atop my head, I milled among the crowd, knowing nothing, eating small pastries, and downing bottle after bottle of Teh Botol. Girls wore flowers on their hair, while more petals were laid across every stair step, along with numerous arrangements of palms that floated above our heads. The smell of incense mixed hypnotically with the heat. On one side, as gamelan percussion played, two performers in masks bantered with one another, and ended up shaking hands as the people around them clapped.

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All around the groom’s house were tall ornate arrangements of offerings—fruit, cakes, or sometimes even cooked meat, skewered to the trunk of a banana tree. I asked an Indonesian friend about them. “They are gebogan,” she explained. “We make them as offerings and sacrifices to the gods.”

I nodded. “Do you also offer fish? Or is it just meat?”

She shook her head. “It’s mostly fruit and flowers. But no fish.”

The flies were already buzzing around the gebogan stacked with meat. Throughout the island stray dogs would sometimes chew on the smaller offerings to the spirits laid out in almost every street corner. But it didn’t matter—their essences had already floated heavenward. The sacrifice had been accepted. Under the towering gebogan we talked and ate and chewed betel and danced; we were very small, indeed, under the shadow of the Lord.

 

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Lio Mangubat
Lio Mangubat is an editor at Summit Books.
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