There are certainly a lot of names for today. Growing up we always called it “Fat Tuesday.” Now I pretty much always hear it called “Mardi Gras,” probably because I’m a little closer to New Orleans and Mobile. When we threw our party last weekend I tried to push the Venetian Carnivale theme, although most people admitted when they heard the word they thought of animals and rides. I suppose that’s the importance of pronouncing it like an Italian and emphasizing the “E” at the end. Carne-vale …
In 2008, Lent was much earlier and my friends and I were already overseas preparing for our semester abroad in Rome. My friend Alice was from Brentwood (England, not Tennessee) and invited us to begin our overseas adventure by first coming to stay with her family in England. So before heading to Rome we explored England for ten days.
A few months before, when we were discussing details and dates, Alice realized we were going to be in England for the start of Lent.
“You’ll be at my house for PANCAKE DAY!”
None of us had ever heard of such a holiday, but it turns out it’s the English version of Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Carnivale. Need to use up your fat and dairy and eggs before fasting for 40 days? Time to make pancakes!
Every spring I go through a mixture of emotions associated with reminiscing my springs overseas. Lenten weekdays remind me of early morning Station Church Masses, feast days remind me of Roman liturgies, and even the smell of car exhaust and cigarettes mixed with spring air brings me right back to my memories of Rome.
So these days bring back memories of England, when we ate pancakes for breakfast and then headed north to the town of Walsingham, one of the greatest pilgrimage sites of medieval Christendom. After stopping in Cambridge –
we arrived in Walsingham in time to have a pint at the local pub to finish our celebrations before Lent.
I was already in love with Walsingham, and I hadn’t even seen it in the light yet. We settled in a big house right on High Street, and when I woke up in the adorable little British town, I began contemplating moving there for good.
On Ash Wednesday, we woke up before dawn so that we could make our pilgrimage – not walking from London to Walsingham, but at least walking from our home in Walsingham out to the Slipper Chapel, the Catholic shrine at Walsingham. The medieval shrine was destroyed during the Reformation and devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham went underground. (Henry VIII visited the shrine as a pilgrim when he was still Fidei defensor… then destroyed it in 1538.) In the 1890s, the Slipper Chapel was purchased and restored by Catholics. It had been the last wayside chapel of the pilgrimage route – the place you’d remove your shoes before continuing your walk to the shrine.
(In the 1920s and 1930s, an Anglican shrine was constructed in town on the site of the original shrine. So we visited that shrine in the afternoon, but in the morning we made a little pilgrimage out of town to the Catholic church.)
We went to morning Mass in the modern church next to the Slipper Chapel, built to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims that come to Walsingham. Then we each began our Lent with prayer time in the Slipper Chapel and a quiet walk back to Walsingham.
Definitely an Ash Wednesday like none other. We spent the next few days driving down to Norwich and up to the English seaside, but Walsingham was our home base and I had fallen in love. We walked every morning to the little Roman Catholic parish in town, where the daily Mass crowd quickly adopted us. We walked every day to get our groceries from the little farm shop in town, where the other shoppers quickly recognized us and adopted us too.
I’m not sure why we ever left.
When I get in these reminiscing moods, I can get sad, remembering friends I haven’t seen in a long time and longing to return to those times and adventures. But God didn’t bless me with these amazing experiences just so that I can think back to them and be sad, dwelling on the past. He gave me friends and adventures to shape my life for the future – so that the gifts and lessons of the past shape who I am in the present and prepare me for the future.
The graces of Walsingham, the friendships of that spring semester, the lessons learned overseas were not given only for my enjoyment in 2008 but to form me for the years to come…. if only I respond to the grace.