Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Reflections on prayer, penance—and pretzels

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 20, 2014

March202014 MURRAY 001I am standing in Publix staring at the bags of pretzels. It’s easy to envision myself sitting at my desk munching on these snacks. After all, don’t I usually give up sweets for Lent—and turn to pretzels as a rather poor substitute?

It seems I’m hardly alone, since pretzels are a traditional Lenten food dating back to the fourth century. Early Christians, you see, kept a very strict fast, which meant no butter, cheese, eggs, sweets or meat. Pretzels are made with water, flour and salt, and were originally called bracellae—Latin for little arms—since the dough is twisted to resemble the arms crossed over the breast in prayer. This is how early Christians prayed and is the way today’s Eastern Catholics approach the altar for Communion.

This simple snack also calls to mind our poor brothers and sisters throughout the world who lack the money for extravagant meals we often take for granted. Thus the pretzel beckons us to almsgiving, a vital part of Lent.

Still, the big question for me is whether foregoing sweets will bring me closer to Christ. Unfortunately, during past Lents I have sometimes felt like I was on just another in a long line of diets, which started in my childhood. When the first sugar-free cola was invented, my friends and I cheerfully guzzled countless cans despite the fact that the soda tasted like a bitter chemical brew. We also gorged ourselves on dietetic chocolates made with a sugar substitute that had an unfortunate digestive effect. All these food adventures had one me-centered goal, of course, and that was to attain a svelte physique.

Now, as I continue shopping, I think about Jesus on the cross. As he was dying, he knew about my life and he knew about every sin I would commit. He saw all the years when I would turn my back on him and make fun of him like the soldiers did. Still, he loved me and he died for me.

So here’s the thing. Is giving up sweets a big enough sacrifice? Isn’t it kind of pitiful and paltry? Of course, if I were a little child again, like in days of old, then giving up cookies and ice cream and candy bars would be a perfect way to show my love. But, for heaven’s sakes, I remind myself, I’m an adult—and surely I can do better!

Now I picture Jesus on the cross with me standing nearby. He is obviously in terrible pain. And I hear myself saying to him, “Jesus, I love you with all my heart. Thank you for giving me life. For loving me despite everything. And forgiving me even though I helped drive the nails into your flesh. Help me to find a way to love you more, so Lent won’t become just another diet.”

And then it hits me. Didn’t Jesus say, “Unless you are converted and become like a little child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven?” And didn’t he come into the world as a little child himself? So why do I have to make everything so complicated? Why not give up chocolates and cookies and cake? Let’s face it: I love these treats today every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. Even more, in fact.

Oh, sure, I could skip lunches, and I could have bread and water for breakfast. But these sacrifices pale when compared to the moments of the day when I retrieve, from one of my many hiding places, a succulent chocolate bar, a crisp, salty peanut butter cookie or a lovely bag of M&Ms. And truth be told, there’s a huge difference between a diet and a Lenten fast because calorie-counting is all about me, and Lent is about the Lord.

In the end I buy a big box containing dozens of snack-size bags of pretzels. At home I brew a cup of tea and devour the salty snacks, which are a sign of penance, a sign of poverty, a sign of prayer. And in that moment I picture myself embracing the Lord Jesus so tenderly and whispering: “Please help me to always love you with the simple heart of a child.”

Lorraine’s newest mystery, “Death Dons a Mask,” features Francesca Bibbo trying to uncover who has a vendetta against the handsome young seminarian at St. Rita’s Church. Artwork is by Jef Murray. Readers may write the Murrays at