What do we talk about when we don’t talk about Lent?


John Kass - Chicago Tribune



It happens to me every year when the ground is cold and wet in March, when polite Easter talk involves pepper and egg sandwiches, and later, chocolate bunnies and those sugary Peeps.

It’s the time when I ask questions of myself that I can’t quite answer, like this one:

As a Christian, how can I reconcile writing a column where tart words and worse fly off my keyboard with Lent and the preparation for Easter?

I can’t reconcile it. Not really. I wish I could, but I can’t. Writing a column is by definition about putting yourself forward. It is not about sitting quietly and humbly in the back pew, your head down, begging for mercy.

Perhaps it should be. But it doesn’t work that way. So I look out at the gray sky and quietly, rightly, pronounce myself a failure. That’s what I do during Lent. The only difference is that this year, I’ve told you about it.

Just the other day, I offended a man I don’t even know. I didn’t mean to at first, but things escalated as they often do on social media, and then I offended with relish.

He wanted to make a life in politics and running for office. It was a dream of his. And I arrogantly told him that it was a bad idea, that a life of politics, even one on the far edges of the game of thrones, could be fascinating and compelling, yes, but ultimately, brutalizing.

To survive in politics, he’d need a thick skin, I said, but once he jumped into the game, his skin would just keep on getting thicker, and eventually, the man he had once been might become unrecognizable.

We all grow thick armor of some kind to survive emotionally in the world. But a life in politics, with all its spin and lies, is especially brutalizing. And the most effective politicians are the silky ones. They use empathy and reason as their weapons.

So I told him that politics was a brutalizing business, and he became angry, as if I was trying to deny him his destiny. Then I became angry and said stupid things, and we insulted each other. Under most circumstances, I would have forgotten it and moved on.

But it was around the day some good and trusted friends and I recorded the most recent episode of my “The Chicago Way” podcast, and it was almost by accident that the issue bubbled up again when I mentioned that it was Lent.

Kristen McQueary, a Chicago Tribune columnist and editorial board member, joined me, and editorial cartoonist Scott Stantis, and my friend Jeff Carlin, of course, the WGN producer who handles the heavy work of the podcast.

Journalists don’t talk about Lent as a rule. Perhaps that’s because to talk about Lent is to inevitably cast yourself as some kind of wild-eyed heretic in the journalism world. So I asked Kristen, who was with her daughter, Ellie, and Scott and Jeff whether it’s possible to write a column where you call people out and reconcile that with the spiritual preparation required of Lent.

“It’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times, and as a cartoonist, my job is to be even meaner than you are,” Stantis joked. “I’ve asked a number of priests this question, that we’re supposed to be forgiving and kind, and yet in my faith, every priest I’ve asked said ‘I think God understands.’”

“I think it’s hard to reconcile what we do with that idea of forgiveness,” said McQueary, “with turning the other cheek and being humble and not putting yourself out there.”

For Christians, there’s probably no more challenging season than Lent. It’s the time when many ask questions of themselves.

One-third of the world’s population considers itself Christian, with more than 2 billion adherents. Yet the 40 days of Lent — when many prepare themselves for the resurrection of Christ from the dead — is all but an unknown subject for public discussion.

You might say it is taboo.

You’d think that something affecting more than 2 billion people might be a subject of discussion. And with so much happening in the Christian world, at a time when so many are falling away, isn’t it odd that we say so little about it? Millennials are falling away too, and older Christians all but hide their faith, or soften it, pounding it into previously unrecognizable forms rather than be mocked in an increasingly militant secular world that loudly professes a tolerance of diverse views.

So what do we talk about when we don’t talk about Lent?

We talk safely of corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, and later of chocolate bunnies and candied Peeps. And these last two are props — whether we acknowledge this or not — for the fertility rites of earth worship. That’s how Easter becomes safe.

But Lent isn’t about sugar. Lent isn’t safe. Ultimately, for many Christians, Lent is difficult, a struggle, like a war, and every year I fail.

I wish I had some glib answers, but I don’t. Outside there is a gray sky and the black limbs of trees. Closing my eyes, I can see the places where I fall, and I ask for mercy.

John Kass

Chicago Tribune

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@chicagotribune.com

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@chicagotribune.com