During Lent, fasting from sin not foods New focus: For many Christian faithful, the emphasis in this religious season has become spiritual reform instead of physical sacrifice.

March 29, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

Ann Coster, a Roman Catholic who lives in Reisterstown, says that even at age 63 she succumbs to peer pressure and joins friends in office gossip. But since Lent began five weeks ago, she's tried to walk away. She's striving, she says, to "act more like Christ."

Dr. DeeDee Mazyck, an Episcopalian from Columbia, has given up watching daytime soap operas for Lent. A retired pediatrician, she acknowledges that the soaps are filled with mindless intrigue and sex scenes. Still, she says, the programs can "draw you in and become too much a part of your life."

For many Christians, Lent has changed from a season for making physical sacrifices -- giving up some foods, cigarettes or chocolate -- to a time to focus on spiritual reform.

The six-week period, a symbolic re-enactment of the 40 days of prayer and temptation that Jesus spent in the desert, ends next week on Good Friday. (For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent ends a week later.)

To hear many people tell it, fasting from sin is much more difficult than the traditional fasting from food.

"It's been a real struggle," says Mrs. Coster, who works in sales at a Westminster medical and surgical supplies store.

"You know how people get together at lunch and start talking bad about people, and if you don't join in you stand out. It makes you feel odd. You can really alienate people because they think you're some goody-goody."

She adds, "Can you imagine I'm still acting that way?"

Historically, Lent has been marked by fasts from meat, oil and dairy products to purify Christians' bodies in preparation for celebrating the resurrection of Christ. However, rules on fasting for Roman Catholics were eased about 30 years ago as a result of Vatican II. Slowly since then, clergy have encouraged their congregations to make Lenten observances that emphasize purification of the heart.

Priests and ministers today are more likely to ask parishioners to volunteer at a food bank or to give up shopping than they are to ask that people stop smoking or drinking.

The Rev. Myron Manzuk of St. Andrew's Church, Orthodox Church in America, says Russian and Greek Orthodox clergy continue to ask their congregations to fast during the entire Lenten season. However, the East Baltimore priest also asks members of his church to make sacrifices that build virtue.

"Often when people fast, there is no difference in their attitude. They fast for Lent just the same as they fast to lose weight," the priest says. "I tell people that it's not only what they put in their mouth that's bad, it's what comes out."

Trixie Ryan, 51, who attends St. James' Episcopal Church in Lothian, says the shift has made Lent more meaningful to her.

"Now I see that sacrifice is not meant as a punishment," she says. "It's meant to make you focus on your blessings."

For the past several years, Mrs. Ryan says, members of her church observed Lent by donating money to one worthy charity. "Most people would write a check and that would be the end of it," she says.

This year, Mrs. Ryan has asked members of the church for more. At the end of Lent the congregation will make a contribution to a charity. But before they do, Mrs. Ryan has people at church counting their blessings.

She distributed a two-page calendar that instructs people to thank God for certain specific blessings each day of Lent. For example, on Feb. 28 the calendar advises, "Jesus is the light of the world. [Give] one cent for each light bulb in your home." On March 1 it says, "I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet. [Give] 5 cents for each pair of shoes."

And March 18 the calendar asks, "Are you warm at night? Give five cents for each blanket at home."

So far she has followed the calendar's instructions each day. Sometimes, like the one when she had to count all the shoes she owns, it gets a little tedious. "It was ridiculous," she says. "I had 22 pairs." She adds, "I realize just how much I have and how much of it I don't need."

Rose Sitaras, 77, a retired restaurant owner, says the same thing about her collection of earrings. "I love earrings," she says. "I don't really shop, but I'll go out of my way to buy earrings."

For Lent, however, she has put them all away and left her ears bare. "It's silly how people become attached to material things," she says. "Lent is a time to put those things aside."

Many others are de-emphasizing material goals during Lent and spending time appreciating relatives and friends.

Kay and James Bee of Baltimore have committed 30 minutes each Sunday to praying together and talking about the issues they face in their lives. Before Lent, the couple said, they were so busy fulfilling commitments at work and church that they almost never took time to encourage and support each other. She is an office manager and runs religious education programs in St. Ann's Catholic parish. And he is a safety officer at the Coast Guard Yard and is a church deacon.

When asked what they have gotten out of their Lenten sessions, Mr. Bee, 55, says, "Unity."

In Columbia, Terry Buhl and her daughter, Heather Damron, 26, decided to observe Lent by giving rather than giving up something. They spend a couple of hours each Sunday afternoon giving Holy Communion to the sick and elderly at a nursing home.

Staying faithful to their Lenten promise is hard at times, said Mrs. Buhl. Some of the patients suffer from dementia and don't understand her visits. "It can be so depressing that it's hard to come back," she said.

But on good days, when the patients hold her hand and kiss her over and over on the cheek, Mrs. Buhl leaves the nursing home beaming. "It makes me feel good because they tell me how much my visits mean to them," Mrs. Buhl says.

Her daughter adds, "They look at you like you're their guardian angel."

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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