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Gimme Shelter: Easter connections, March 30, 2024

I must have been about 10, when a few days before Ash Wednesday, my mother asked me what I was planning to give up for Lent. Faking a thoughtful expression, I said, “Clark Bars.”

She immediately laughed. It became a family joke. You see, there was not a candy bar made that I didn’t crave … except for Clark Bars.

“Giving up” something you enjoyed was a requisite in our Roman Catholic household for the season of Lent, the 40 days of prayer, fasting and alms giving that starts on Ash Wednesday, the day that reminds us of a truth from Genesis: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We all had dirty foreheads on those Wednesdays, and knew the reason why.

My family was in no way fanatic about our faith, but the rituals were observed. My father gave up drinking for Lent. That is, every day except a certain day in mid-March, which he said he was allowed to sink a few because he had a dispensation from the bishop. We all gave him a look that was the equivalent of my mother’s laugh.

Speaking of fanatics, I’ve always been enchanted by the story of St. Kevin and the blackbird. Seems Kevin was a monk who never left his cell near the banks of a river.

No one tells the tale better than Seamus Heaney, who opens his poem by describing the saint praying in his cell, with both arms outstretched, palms up, but the place is so tiny one arm is out the window. A blackbird lands in Kevin’s palm and begins to make a nest. The poet writes:

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Heaney asks the reader to imagine Kevin. Is he “self-forgetful or in agony all the time?” Or maybe he prays, and has made his whole body, his whole being, a prayer, to the point where “he has forgotten self, forgotten bird/ And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”

Giving something up, sacrificing, is a tradition of all the major religions, a way to step outside your normal daily round, helping you focus on your purpose within all this noise. I was once hiking in a remote area with monasteries where the monks took you in and gave you a bed and fed you.

At first I was appalled at the tasteless, meager and poor quality of the food, until I realized that was the point.

My family was devout, but not, repeat, fanatic. This, however, didn’t stop us finding humor to soften the at times deadly pomposity of our religion.

In our house, Palm Sunday was “the slipperiest day of the year,” because the New Testament said Christ entered Jerusalem during Holy Week on a small donkey, or, using the archaic term “an ass.” Therefore, the slipperiest day was when Christ went into Jerusalem on his …

We kept, and keep, our family traditions — to use a word — religiously. I rely on them, and the traditions of the church, even though these days I’m only a weddings-and-funerals man. One family ritual — carried on now by my sister Liz — was my father giving everyone a tall chocolate bunny for Easter, and if anyone wasn’t home for Easter, they would be mailed one.

When my brother was on a business trip to Tokyo one spring, he said he nearly wept — before laughing — after he was called to the hotel’s desk and presented with a box with a brown bunny nestled in green paper.

Liz decorates eggs for Easter in the delicate, exquisitely designed Ukrainian style, and has for more than 40 years. She and her friend Gail had been to Ukraine, and started the tradition after taking a course on the art when they got home. “We made them with our families,” Liz said. “The next year we joined forces and made them together from then on.”

Our traditions were handed down, and were an identity, kept alive through many rituals. The calendar marked by saints’ days, the feasts of Christmas and Easter celebrating redemption and renewal, were always there to keep us together, pointed in the same direction, informing us of who we were.

We were given the gift at an early age of the knowledge that community, like a family, is a group that shares values, aspirations and a commitment to one another.

Without those qualities, there’s no community, but merely a crowd.

Ritual, community, connection. We’re in a season that connects us to each other, allowing a chance to forget self, like Kevin and the blackbird, and find something far richer beyond the everyday drumbeat of time and place.

Happy Easter.