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Deep-fried devotion

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Come, all ye faithful
The signs of Lent are everywhere. McDonalds' billboards proclaim Fillet-O-Fish specials. Perkins is promoting its seafood platters. And churches across the state are advertising their Friday fish fries.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Sharon Glover is standing in the middle of the church kitchen, making the sign of the cross with her batter-covered hand. She's in charge of the night's Lenten meal at St. Philip Catholic Church in North Minneapolis. And she's praying that the super-sized dessert recipe did indeed call for nine eggs. 

"I'm making devil's food cake," says Glover. "We had angel food the week before. I felt that was a good one. That was a success. So, now it's the devil's turn."

Super size
Sharon Glover triples her cake recipe for the evening's Lenten dinner.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The way Glover sees it, you don't have to be somber to be saved. And that should probably be St. Philip's mantra as well. The church basement boasts a huge electronic bingo board. The choir is accompanied by drums and a bass guitar, and parishioners love swapping tales about their childhood fears of nuns. 

Over in the kitchen corner, Michelle Patterson is dropping breaded catfish into a vat of bubbling oil. Like the majority of Catholics, Patterson forgoes meat on Fridays during Lent. Why, though, she's not quite sure. 

"I guess that's what God brought down," jokes Patterson. "Sharon, why is it just fish we can eat on Friday? Where did that come from?" 

Sharon Glover stops dicing a green pepper to think. She says she knows the answer; she just can't explain it very well. And she'd hate for the pastor to hear her make a mistake. 

A sprinkle and a dash
Lots of fish means lots of seasoning.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Glover may not be able to articulate the origin of the time-honored Lenten ritual, but fish-filled Fridays have long been a part of her life. She remembers being a child and trying to make sense of the calendar. There was M for Monday. T for Tuesday. And then there was F. 

"I always thought F meant fish," explains Glover. "And that's how I grew up. I really did. Oh, Friday's fish. You know, that's just it." 

Traditions, be they religious or secular, are curious things. They take on great meaning. Yet, what they actually mean can be surprisingly squishy. 

Lent is no exception. 

For some churchgoers, the practice emulates the sacrifice God made when he gave the world his only son.  

"To me, it's to give up something something, like God gave up," proposes Michelle Patterson. "It's to say to yourself, 'I can give something up like he did.'" 

Others see it as a way to remember Christ's crucifixion on the cross. 

Fish and fixings
The Church of St. Philip in Minneapolis serves up dozens of fish dinners each Friday night during Lent.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Can we give up a little meat for that? Ya know?" asks one dinner customer. 

Of course, as worthy as those motivations may be, they're not exactly doctrine. For that, it's probably best to ask someone like Father John Paul Erickson. He's the associate pastor at the Cathedral of Saint Paul. 

He explains Lent as the act of "accompanying our Lord in the 40 days as described in scripture where he fasted and he prayed in preparation for his public ministry. And so the Christian, in union and solidarity with Jesus, spends time in the desert learning though self denial how to love."  

In simpler terms, the season might be seen as "a time for us to reflect upon our relationship with God."  

The cathedral's Deacon Phil Stewart admits that, formally, Lent is a period of prayer, sacrifice and penance. But he says it's also a time to refocus, a time to remember what's really important. 

Lining up for Lent
Dinner guests check out the food offerings.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

We live in a materialistic world where we are drawn to a lot of sinful things," says Stewart. "Our god becomes something else, whether it be material goods or whatever. But during Lent we reflect upon that and put that in proper perspective and put proper attention on God so we can draw closer to him." 

So just how does resisting the filet mignon connect people with a higher being? 

"Way back when, meat was a very scare thing," explains the deacon. "So to give up meat, it was very sacrificial to do that." 

And rejecting something so desirable, says Stewart, is a way of expressing belief in -- and love for -- something greater. 

T.G.I. Fish
Most of these Catholics grew up eating fish on Fridays.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Back at St. Philip's, the fish is ready. There's music playing. And dozens have lined up for the Lenten dinner. 

Church member Dorice Law picks up a heaping plate of fish and scalloped potatoes and grabs a seat underneath a wall hanging of Jesus. 

"I like fish," says Law. "I like that McDonald's has a fish special. Praise God. I'll eat fish just because of the fish special. But I don't feel any obligation or I don't feel sinful or I don't feel as though God really gives a rip. I mean, I don't think God cares whether I had fish or I had a chicken sandwich. I think that what's important to him is that I acknowledge the season and that I know what the season is about. God is not interested in all of that stuff we make up. It's just stuff to keep us busy." 

Religion doesn't come in the form of Mahi Mahi or butter-drenched lobster. That's what Law likes to say. And she thinks giving up meatloaf or spare ribs is just a way for people to make themselves look spiritual. 

"You could be as sinful as you want, hate your brother, won't do nothing for your mama, but you never had meat on Friday," points out Law. "So that's a bunch of mess."

Satisfied customer
This Catholic relished the Lenten dinner -- especially the white frosting on the cake.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Still, this life-long Catholic sits in the church basement on this cold Friday night enjoying a catfish fillet. In fact, she rarely misses a Lenten gathering. She says she loves to celebrate the beauty and power of the Christian season. 

"Anything that pulls us together is part of the plan. This is more important for us all to be together and then for us to do things to help each other as much as possible. 

And, really, in a time of war and political divisions and economic uncertainty, what could be more sacred? If there's a sheet cake of Devil's Food involved, all the better.