Tuesday (February 13) is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday – called “fat” because it was the last day Christians could eat up all the rich stores in their pantries before Lent, which started the next day. It is also called Shrove Tuesday, because the faithful were encouraged to think about their sins in advance of the penitential Ash Wednesday. Shrove is a form of the verb shrive, meaning: “present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.” Perhaps, in some traditions, that literally meant going to the confessional in preparation for participating in the Ash Wednesday service. In any case, one was to be cleansed from one’s sins either by acting them out and eating them up (Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) or by getting them absolved through repentance and confession (Shrove Tuesday) – or perhaps by doing both (acting out and then getting forgiven).
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the first Monday of Lent is Clean Monday, when both the soul and the household are thoroughly cleaned. Perhaps this is related in some way to the practice of spring cleaning. In any case, the idea is to sweep the decks and enter Lent with a clean conscience and a clean house.
Because it is related to Easter, Shrove Tuesday is a “moveable feast,” dependent on the celestial lunar calendar rather than what is called the “civil” calendar – but which is really the Gregorian calendar (named after a the pope who instituted it, so it is not entirely civil!). Hemingway used the term for the title of his Paris sketches: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” As we age, we might think about what were the moveable feasts in our lives – memories which can enrich us. Of course, there are also memories that bring regret. For those, perhaps we need the cleansing of Shrove Tuesday or Clean Monday.
In earlier times, old age was seen as a time for repentance and making one’s soul right. Widows and widowers often joined convents and monasteries. In the Prologue to The Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530), aspirants to the monastic life are cautioned that “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.” The Buddhists have a tradition of older people “going forth” into a form of psychological homelessness in preparation for their death. It was a time for renunciation and, perhaps, mental reconciliation.
In our culture, renunciation in old age often takes the form of downsizing. Clearing house is, perhaps, a form of shriving. Tag sales are held, children are encouraged to take Grandma’s china, thrift shops receive our donations by the bagful. The accumulation of a lifetime is evaluated and distributed. And such adjustments also require psychological recalibrations, cleansing of false ideas about who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going.
As we enter Lent, it might be well to think the need for cleanliness of all types. The story I have posted today (“Shrove Tuesday”) takes place in a laundromat, a “Temple of Clean,” where old meet young, and everyone is “shriven of their sweat and dirt and filth until the next week. It is where our transgressions are rinsed away, spun into filaments, and tumbled out into the upper air.”