As Pope Francis says in his message for Lent, “no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.”
I was a little shy of ten years old when I had what may have been my most spiritually profitable Lent ever. Looking back now, I can see clearly that I owed that to my mother. And the Purple Monster.
A short time before, my parents had taken the significant step of letting me to go to the movies by myself. That meant that every Friday after supper, I trooped off to the local movie palace with a gang of neighborhood kids and plunked down my quarter to see a cowboy movie and the latest installment of the current serial.
The cowboy movies were B-grade flicks starring people like Johnny Mack Brown and William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but what really enthralled me was the serial.
The one that had started just as I began attending those Friday evening shows was called “The Purple Monster Strikes.” It was about a visitor from another planet who, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, went about causing all sorts of trouble that each week ended with the heroes of the story in a desperate, apparently unresolvable fix. (Come back next week and you’ll see how they get out of it!)
The script was primitive and the acting execrable, but for at least one nine-year-old boy, The Purple Monster was the last word in sophisticated entertainment. Week after week, I could hardly wait for Friday to roll around so that I could find out what happened next.
Then came Lent. As Ash Wednesday drew near, my mother raised the inevitable question: What was I giving up? She didn’t command, but she made it clear that the correct answer was: “Candy and movies.”
Candy I could do without. But no movies meant six weeks without The Purple Monster. Painful though the prospect was, I choked it down — both to satisfy my mother and because, I was dimly aware, somehow or other it was the right thing to do. All through Lent I did without the Friday evening movies. By the time Lent ended, The Purple Monster Strikes had run its course.
I have the impression that “giving up something for Lent” is not as popular today as it was back then. That’s too bad. Rightly understood, it’s practical training in detachment and, as such, extremely useful. God wants us to rid ourselves of our attachments, for in the end God himself is the only attachment worth having. In the words of that spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, “Only God, who is eternal and immense, fills all things and is the true consolation of the soul and true joy of the heart” (II.5).
Love him and fit everything else in the context of that love — that’s the lesson God wants us to learn, and it is the great lesson the ascetical life aims to teach. And, little as he understood it, for one nearly ten-year-old giving up The Purple Monster was a step in that direction.
Note that the giving-up should hurt a bit. As Pope Francis says in his message for Lent, “no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.” If you hate turnips and give them up, it doesn’t count for much. Profitable giving-up will therefore differ for different people. Should it be television, Facebook, listening to Bach? It’s a question each one must answer for himself.
Meanwhile, I’ve got another question that’s gone unanswered for quite a few years: Can anyone tell me — at last — how that Purple Monster got his comeuppance in the end?
Russell Shawis the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns, and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and former Secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.