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Offer up a missed snack for world’s hungry


Lent begins. I fast on Ash Wednesday in the officially sanctioned but kind of wimpy way, simply not eating more than one regular meal. I skip breakfast and lunch, but drink all the coffee I want -- OK, OK, I even have a latte from a coffee shop that morning. I have a bowl of soup and some bread for dinner. I have a hard time imagining only drinking water for a whole day. I’d certainly get a caffeine withdrawal headache. I can’t even fathom doing a hunger strike. Still, my meager efforts connect me with other Catholics around the world for a day, and I do contemplate how it might feel to be truly hungry, and not by choice.

My children are all too young to be obliged to fast, but we’ve experienced a taste, if you’ll forgive me, of hunger, however inadvertently. To appreciate my story, you must first understand our morning routine, which consists largely of me barking off checklists of things my three kids will need for school and after-school activities: “Do you have your swimming stuff/gym shoes/flute/piano books/overdue books/mittens/permission slips/lunches/props for the play/Valentines/and oh, yeah, homework?” I turn into what they call me behind my back, and occasionally to my face, Mean Mom.

OK. We’re all assembled in the car to more barking on my part -- “Seatbelts, now!” -- and we’re careening off to school. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I notice the kids’ faces are frozen in neutral, as if they’re holding their breath and silently saying their acts of contrition. (I don’t think any of them actually know that prayer, but let’s assume what’s going through their minds is something comparable.) God forbid the guy in front of me should have to turn.

When I pick them up for after-school activities, I try to make up for being Mean Mom by remembering to bring snacks -- an apple or some yogurt, or when the cupboards are looking a little bare, a box of crackers. One day I actually planned ahead and added an extra item to the lunchboxes of the two who had piano lessons that afternoon. “Now, kids, save one item from your lunch to have for snack today.” Since I eyeballed each one as they nodded earnestly, I thought we had an understanding.

My best-laid plan, however, was foiled: One piano player was simply too hungry and ate everything at lunchtime. The other gave her yogurt to a friend who’d forgotten her lunch. They were hungry, and we had nothing to eat. The piano players began to whine, and I agreed to stop en route at a bakery to pick up a cookie. Then it dawned on me that I’d left my wallet at home. No money, no food. Time for an object lesson -- that Catholic classic -- the one about the starving children in other lands. This would test my parenting IQ. And, yes, I had an ulterior motive: Could I get them to stop whining?

OK, kids, I said. I’m sorry you’re hungry. That’s not a good feeling. I’m sorry I didn’t bring a snack. But think of all the children in the world who not only don’t get a snack after school, but haven’t eaten anything all day because their parents don’t have any food to give them and don’t have any money to buy food. And furthermore, I continued, this is Lent, and there’s something you can do, right here, right now.

“You can,” I told them conspiratorially, “offer it up.”

I then experienced a kind of anamnesis in which I heard the voices of adults in my Catholic school past encouraging the “offering up” of our small, professed Lenten sacrifices of giving up candy, being mean to brother/sister, talking back to mom/dad, meat on Fridays. Doubt flickered. Was this the sort of anachronistic fallacy any self-respecting, post-Vatican II parent would disavow? I felt, momentarily, as if I were admitting that I slept in curlers or wore a girdle. But this was no time for equivocation, it was now or never. I forged ahead, explaining that our hunger wasn’t going to cause those children not to be hungry, but we could think of it as kind of a prayer. We experience a little bit of hunger and if we offer it up and ask God to accept our small suffering and bless those other children who have lots of hunger, maybe somehow it helps.

My older children fell silent, pondering the injustice of children like them with nothing to eat. Smooth, I thought, patting myself on the back.

“But that doesn’t make me stop being hungry,” piped up the 6-year-old in the backseat, tears streaming down her face. Ah. The rub indeed.

No, honey, it doesn’t. But that is what Lent is all about. We consider that some of us are uncomfortably hungry and others uncomfortably full -- and it becomes clear that in our broken world we are all starved for justice. And perhaps the inner act of imagination in which we “offer up” our petty sacrifices does indeed contain a kind of mystical logic, a cosmic purpose that doesn’t make sense but that does make meaning, leading us ultimately to recognize, too, our common human hunger for God.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002