Question: Why do you ask Catholics not to partake in Carnival-like activities during Lent?
In the February 11 column that focused on Carnival, I raised the issue of the protracted season. I have been asked to elaborate on this. In that column, I said: “Ritual has a beginning, middle and an end. Carnival ended abruptly midnight Tuesday. That boundary was important. You then entered a space of deep purification where you were not allowed to meddle with anything from the Carnival—no calypso, no fêtes, no shows. Today there is no boundary; cool down Wednesday morphs into Friday and beyond. There is no end date. So there is no catharsis. There is a prolongation of license. This too is a fundamental challenge. Money, pleasure and business have replaced art, religion and the spiritual life. Again, what exists in Carnival is a reflection of what is true of the whole society.”
This is a tightly packed statement that tries to convey several key notions in a few sentences. Let us begin by understanding both Carnival and Lent as ritual times, given to us for a sacred purpose.
In the Catholic world, Carnival is a pre-Lenten celebration. In the same way, Lent may be considered a pre-Easter celebration. Each one has its own dynamic and its own inner rhythm. So historically, Carnival, Lent and Easter were all interlinked and flowed as regular times and seasons in the Catholic imagination.
The excess of Carnival is precisely a counterweight to the austerity of Lent that flows inexorably into the glorious season of Easter. One leads into the other. Each of these celebrations has a different ethos or character. Holding the tension and recognising the contrast is vital to the point of these celebrations.
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 speaks to this sense of time for a purpose, “for everything under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die”. The time of Carnival is a time for festivity, a time for fun, a time for excess—eating, dancing, music, celebration.
Lent, however, is a time for austerity, fasting, self-sacrifice. This sense of time as time ‘for’ is at the heart of understanding ritual. This is not an imposition but an invitation to draw close to God—a call to intimacy.
Ritual time is given to us for the journey. The seasons, and the rhythm they establish, offer a path to grace through, what the ancients would call, catharsis—the purging of our desires and emotions to create space for God to fill—conversion of heart. The purpose of ritual is discipleship.
When Carnival is disconnected from the Catholic imagination, the celebration’s power to bring deep inner transformation is questionable. For Carnival, just as for Lent, we need to rediscover the inner dynamic of each season as it relates to Catholic culture and identity. The contrast and tension between the two is vital.
The baby-boomer generation grew up with very strong boundaries. Some will say too strong. A parent only had ‘to give the eye’ for the child to be reminded of the boundaries. The baby boomers did not raise their children with the same clarity around boundaries. Without boundaries, we cannot possess real spiritual power: we will become addicts. We will have no sacred container for our soul. We will not reach maturity. This is our current state.
Lent is a time for enforcing boundaries. The ethos of this season is defined by three spiritual practices —prayer, fasting and almsgiving—all requiring the individual to impose boundaries.
Prayer informs the boundary between God and me. It invites me to give God the place in my inner universe that God deserves—the source and summit of my existence. The fact that God is God means that I am not omniscient. It means that I need to bow and humble myself before this God. This is a boundary that we humans are having much trouble with in our time.
Fasting informs the boundary between my appetites and me. I can say a sacred ‘no’ to my appetites. This allows me to learn emotional intelligence and the ability to delay gratification. Thus, I learn again to regulate all appetites and to place them in proper order.
Almsgiving informs the boundary between the other and me. It is not all about me! I need to learn that to flourish I must sacrifice and die to myself. The person without what they need is more important than my wants being satisfied. This is an important boundary for our age.
This is why I am asking that Lent be a strong boundary for Carnival which ends midnight Tuesday. Taking up Lent with the full depth of the tradition opens a spiritual path.
The spiritual practices of Lent invite us to review the rhythm of our Catholic life and see in it the beauty and the depth we need to move towards missionary discipleship. The practices of Lent also invite us to do boundary work and thus open ourselves to the infinite—God.
A culture defines itself by what it borrows and what it refuses to borrow. I ask that we refuse to borrow from the growing trend of secularism, materialism and hedonism that is taking over our sweet Trinidad and Tobago.
In the same way we participate in Carnival, I am asking that we participate fully in Lent—take up a prayer practice, give up something by fasting and abstinence and give away something to the poor and those on the margins of society. If we observe Lent with generosity of heart, then Easter will be an amazing time of grace and resurrection.
Key message: We have many seasons in our Church: Live each of them fully. In Lent, commit to the spiritual discipline of the Church, from Ash Wednesday till Easter Sunday.
Action Step: Review your attitude to Lent, your willingness to take on the spiritual practices or not. Look at the times or areas where you are being very accommodating and indulging. But also, where you have strong boundaries and have a conversation with Christ about this.