I don’t know about you, but I can always use a good kick in the pants to finish strong in the last two weeks of Lent. And this year, it came from the most unlikely of places – from the real Maria von Trapp, yes, THE Maria von Trapp whose story was made famous by “The Sound of Music”.

My roommates and I made sure to record the 50th anniversary special on The Sound of Music last week. We watched it together, gushing over the perfectly embodied grace that is Julie Andrews.

I mean, she's just the best. (Source: screen capture)

I mean, she’s just the best. (Source: screen capture)

But it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that the real Von Trapp’s story was quite different from the movie portrayal (if you didn’t know, my apologies for shattering the (beautiful) illusion). Among several other discrepancies, the real von Trapp family did not immigrate to Switzerland via a backcountry mountain path on foot, suitcases in tow. The family actually first traveled by train to Italy, and then made their way to the United States. They brought their songs – and their strong Catholic faith – with them to their new home.

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The real Maria von Trapp. Photo from her passport to the United States.

The real Maria von Trapp. Photo from her passport to the United States.

Also, it turns out the real Maria von Trapp was not quite the sweet and bubbly character her movie self was – she’s been described as rather a “force of nature” with a bit of temper, though still a very loving person. This real Maria wrote a book about her Austrian Catholic traditions that she continued to live out  with her family in the United States. In it she included hymns and songs and recipes used by her family, and she provides incredible insight into the transferring of Catholic traditions from the old world to the new.

Fair warning, she can come on a bit strong. Maria von Trapp was no delicate flower frolicking through the fields of the alps singing soprano; she was made of stockier stuff. Here are five things I learned about Lent from Maria von Trapp:

1. Instruction is just as important as penance. The real von Trapp family instituted what Maria calls a Lenten “reading program”, and everyone in the family chose three books. One book was for the mind, such as a book on Church history or papal encyclicals. One book was for the soul; a spiritual volume such as “The Story of a Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux. The final book was for the heart; typically a sinner-to-saint biography such as St. Augustine’s Confessions. And it better be a good one:

“…it has to be a well-written biography, that is, a book showing a human being in the round, with all his shortcomings that had to be overcome by faithful cooperation with grace–and not the old-fashioned hagiography in sugar-candy style with its doubtful statements, carefully stressing that the saint is born a full-fledged saint…”

Books were to be discussed with family members, and a book of the bible was also chosen to read out loud to the family during Lent.

2. It used to be that Catholics fasted not only from meat, but from most animal products (dairy and eggs) during the season of Lent. Because this was the case, all forbidden eats were rounded up in the weeks and days before Lent and made into delicious treats before the period of fasting. During Lent, Maria preferred her own rye bread (the recipe, along with many others, she provides in the book) over store-bought nonesense.

“…the bread we can buy in stores is not the daily bread we pray for in the “Our Father,” but something on the line of soft, tender sponger rubber, white sponge rubber. It has made us return to the dark rye bread, the home-made rye bread we used to have in Austria. All our guests rave about it, and so we want to share our recipe with others.”

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3. Maria von Trapp was slightly appalled by the lenient practices of modern day lent. A priest once told her this was because “man’s constitution” was weaker after two world wars. But after some reading on the benefits of a fast, Maria was not buying it.

“I have repeatedly read now that there is absolutely nothing to it to undergo a complete fast. One can even continue one’s occupation, and afterwards (the afterwards can be after thirty days, I was assured) one feels newly born and twenty years younger. All right, if this is so, let us not be so soft any more. What can be done ‘To feel twenty years younger’ must be possible for our own reason: ‘that our fasts may be pleasing to Thee, O Lord, and a powerful remedy.’ (Post Communion, Ash Wednesday).”

4. But still, she notes, motivation is important. The modern world tends to look at Lent as a chance to get the bikini body back, rather than as a time to do something to atone for sins and to grow in love for the Lord. Is our fasting motivated by love, or by being beach-ready by April?

“The constitution of man seems not to have changed at all, then. What has changed are the motives. While the early Christians abstained from food and drink and meat and eggs out of a great sense of sorrow for their sins, and for love of God took upon themselves these inconveniences, modern man has as motive the “body beautiful,” the “girlish figure,” the “how to look younger and live longer” motive. These selfish motives are strong enough to convince him that fasting is good for him–in fact, it is fun.”

5. Lent in the days of early Christianity was ROUGH. In her book, Maria includes an excerpt from “Easter Book” by Father Weiser, in order to better illustrate the idea of penance. It used to be that on Ash Wednesday, persons who had committed “serious public sin and scandal” gathered at church, barefoot and wearing sackcloth, to begin 40 days of public penance. If we ever feel the need to complain about our lent, we need only to read this and be quiet:

“Public sinners approached their priests shortly before Lent to accuse themselves of their misdeeds and were presented by the priests on Ash Wednesday to the bishop of the place. Outside the cathedral, poor and noble alike stood barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, heads bowed in humble contrition. The bishop, assisted by his canons, assigned to each one particular acts of penance according to the nature and gravity of his crime. Whereupon they entered the church, the bishop leading one of them by the hand, the others following in single file, holding each other’s hands. Before the altar, not only the penitents, but also the bishop and all his clergy recited the seven penitential psalms. [Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142.] Then, as each sinner approached, the bishop imposed his hands on him, sprinkled him with holy water, threw the blessed ashes on his head, and invested him with the hair shirt. Finally he admonished (“with tears and sighs” as the regulation suggests): “Behold you are cast out from the sight of holy mother Church because of your sins and crimes, as Adam the first man was cast out of Paradise because of his transgression.” After this ceremony the penitents were led out of the church and forbidden to re-enter until Holy Thursday (for the solemn rite of their reconciliation). Meanwhile they would spend Lent apart from their families in a monastery or some other place of voluntary confinement, where they occupied themselves with prayer, manual labor, and works of charity. Among other things they had to go barefoot all through Lent, were forbidden to converse with others, were made to sleep on the ground or on a bedding of straw, and were unable to bathe or cut their hair.

Sometimes I think I am convinced to be too easy on myself during Lent and other times of penance. I want to be sure that I am not falling into the lie that I can somehow earn God’s love by adding more or harsher penances. However, I also need to be reminded of the harsher days of penance in the Church, and realize that what I am doing is not at all that difficult (giving up Netflix vs. hairshirt for 40 days…hmmm). Sometimes I can convince myself too much in the other direction – avoiding the temptation to earn God’s love while not being faithful in the acts of penance that he actually is calling me to do.

Let’s finish out Lent strong, and look forward to a beautiful Easter!

To access Maria von Trapp’s book, entitled “Around the Year with the TRAPP Family”, visit: http://www.ewtn.com/library/FAMILY/TRAPP.TXT. The book is no longer available in print.

To learn more about the real von Trapps, visit: http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/von-trapps.html