Islanders observe the church’s most holy season

Sandra Turner and Mosely. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Christians on the Vineyard along with those around the world are in the midst of observing Lent. Considered by many to be the church’s holiest season, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and stretches nearly seven weeks before culminating with Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection, according to church teachings. The 40 days, which exclude Sundays, are said to echo the 40 days that Christ wandered in the desert, fasting and praying, before he returned to be put to death on the cross. Accordingly, churchgoers begin the season by receiving a smudge of ash on their foreheads, with the solemn reminder that “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” They are exhorted to fast, pray, and “keep a Holy Lent.”

The tradition of observing Lenten disciplines varies from denomination to denomination, church to church, age to age. Yet it remains an unwavering constant in the Christian calendar.

While “giving up something for Lent” is the best known and likely most widely practiced discipline, “taking something on” is a common custom. Whether delving into spiritual study, committing to daily prayer and meditation, going on retreat, reading the Bible, or even doing a community service project, “taking on” is another, perhaps deeper, way to mark Lent.

Along with special prayers and hymns for the season’s worship, churches offer Lenten programs for study and contemplation. At Island churches these include book or Bible study, educational films, sacred concerts, themed group discussions, and “quiet days” or retreats. But beyond participating in organized activities, individual believers often choose their own personal ways of observing the season.

Giving up an indulgence or activity remains a common practice. Many Islanders reported abstaining from chocolate, sweets, donuts, alcohol and other favorites. Some also commit to daily spiritual reading. Many improve their weekend church attendance or add a midweek service to their schedules, making pews more and more full as Easter nears. We also talked to some who, like many Christians today, are taking a more reflective and intentional approach to Lent.

A more meaningful life

“I try to accentuate the positive rather than the negative,” said Sandra Turner, a lifelong Episcopalian. A church organist by profession, Ms. Turner was a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven for several decades, recently transferring to St. Andrews to be near her Edgartown home.

“I make time for some good Lenten reading and attend an extra service at the church,” Ms. Turner said. “I do this rather than give up something trivial that is probably good for us to give up anyway.”

Many years ago when their five children were young, she and her late husband, Kimball, said morning and evening prayers with them during Lent. “They were brought up to be good Episcopalians,” she said.

This year Ms. Turner attends a discussion group on “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg. And her church attendance is faithful.

Although music is very important to her, Ms. Turner would rather play than listen. She keeps up with her organ skills by practicing two hours at the church daily year-round. Lately, she has been playing Bach’s Partita and Fugue in B-flat minor on her home Steinway, a piece she feels captures the Lenten mood.

“My intent is to be more mindful of other people and try to lead a more meaningful life,” Ms. Turner concluded.

A spiritual connection

“Lent for me, as a child, you gave up chocolate, you gave up something, but it never seemed connected to anything,” said Lena Prisco of Oak Bluffs and Grace Church. “You gave it up for the six or seven weeks, then you’d go back to your old habits. There didn’t seem to be any real reason, no spiritual connection to it.”

Ms. Prisco was raised Catholic, and continued in that faith until her children made their first communion some years ago. When she moved to Martha’s Vineyard four years ago, she wanted a new church, one that had a lot of community involvement. Grace Church was it!

“I felt at home the minute I walked through the door,” she said. She and her partner Arlene Stark married in the church, and they are involved in several community programs there.

Now Ms. Prisco is discovering a way to observe Lent that feels more meaningful than giving up the comic books, sweets, and bike rides of her childhood. “Why does it have to be negative? Why not change a bad habit, or try to become more self-aware?” she suggested.

This Lent, Ms. Prisco is striving to become less agitated, less short-tempered, and when she is upset or irritated with someone to “just step back.” “If you start the process and continue with it, it becomes part of you,” she said. “You can change that behavior!”

Ms. Prisco said her efforts to change negative patterns are going well. She admits she has not been perfect, but when she slips up she is painfully aware of it, will stop and apologize. “I’m more apt to take ownership, take responsibility for that behavior,” she explained. “It’s an opportunity to make a change and become a better person.”

The most spiritual time

Megan Alley of Oak Bluffs and her family members have rich memories of Lenten disciplines in years gone by. Ms. Alley and her husband, Dennis, are members of the Good Shepherd Parish and worship at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church. They also attend St. Augustine’s when it is open and she sings in the choir there. During Lent they attend weekly Mass and also Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services.

Both Ms. Alley and her husband grew up on the Island. Although she was raised Baptist, Dennis was Catholic and recalls going to daily Mass during Lent as a youth. Dietary restrictions were very strict, with no meat on Fridays, and meat allowed at only one meal per day the rest of the week. Young people were taught to give up something and to be especially helpful to others during the 40 days.

Her brother-in-law, Kerry Alley, remembered the daily morning Masses during Lent when he and Dennis were altar boys. They attended every service during Holy Week leading up to Easter and had to fast and make other sacrifices.

Kerry even recalled being tardy to school often because the priest would forget the church keys and arrive late. One morning Kerry muttered that he wished the priest would get to Mass on time. The priest sent him home to tell his mother who made him go back and apologize.

“Which was the worst penance, telling his mother or apologizing, I don’t know,” said Ms. Alley.

“When our three children were young during the 1970s we strictly adhered to the rules of fast,” Ms. Alley recalled. “The children were required to give up things. We attended many services during the week and Stations of the Cross or Adoration of the Cross. I have seen that gradually changing.

“Now the church focuses on giving up more non-material things, like impatience, selfishness, greed, untruths. Church attendance increases during this season.

I think the Lenten season is the most spiritual time, more so than even Christmas. It has brought me to a new awareness of gratitude and willingness to accept people the way they are even if I do not agree with their lives. Also an awareness of how precious life is. I still cry at Good Friday services where every year I become aware of the ultimate sacrifice that was made to bring us to Easter.”

A deepened experience

Marjorie Pierce of West Tisbury has always been a Quaker, but often attended Congregational Churches. Coming to Martha’s Vineyard for work several years ago, she was drawn to the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. That connection grew stronger with the arrival of the Rev. Cathlin Baker. Ms. Pierce stressed that Ms. Baker has been instrumental in her spiritual growth, her decision to become an associate member of the church, and her deepened experience of Lent.

“From childhood Easter was very important, a wonderful holiday full of gladness and hope,” Ms. Pierce said. “But the process of arriving at Easter was oblique. That has blossomed for me here at this church. I see Easter as a new beginning and the process of Lent a chance to reach into the unknown and re-examine myself and my life, and listen for what the next calling is going to be.”

Ms. Pierce reads daily from “A Season for the Spirit” and has expanded her usual morning prayer time to include evening prayers too. She participates in the weekly “Conscious Living, Conscious Aging” study group which her church is sponsoring in cooperation with the Methodist churches and the Hebrew Center. And she tries to take quiet time out for reflection and self-examination each day. She sees Lent as “an opportunity to be forgiven, to be accepted.”

Now serving as chairman of the church’s Missions Committee and Community Suppers, Ms. Pierce says she is more intentional about supporting friends and neighbors during this holy season. “I want to feel my own spirit as well as reach out to others,” she said.