Local parish vicar WEALANDS BELL on how, even in this modern 21st century, a little Lenten abstinence really can make the heart grow stronger
If I asked whether you kept Wednesdays and Fridays as “days of fasting and abstinence”, in line with ancient religious practice, you would be forgiven for looking at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. No one lives like that in this highly sophisticated 21st century.
But if we went on to talk about your approach to food and drink, it’s quite likely you’d tell me you had certain nights of the week when you stayed “dry”. You might even be one of the many people who regulate their calorie-intake by following a “5-2 diet”: on five days of the week you allow yourself a normal intake of food, but on two days each week you limit yourself to a few hundred calories in a bid to increase self-control while decreasing your weight. And a very good plan it is, too – brought to you by the people who gave you Christmas and Easter.
For many of these apparently brand-new ideas for a better life have their roots deep in religious tradition: whether it’s the cycle of feasting and fasting, the use of candles for relaxation, or perhaps the whole business of rejuvenation and restoration through the use of expensive lotions and potions, it is all borrowed from the Church, and although it’s fair to say that the Church first borrowed much of it from the cultures of antiquity, nonetheless our own secular insights owe more to Christianity than we might imagine.
Which brings us to Lent.
You may have seen the signs. Entire supermarket aisles with shelves devoted to lemon-shaped containers of squeezable juice and granulated sugar indicating that Pancake Day is imminent. And even those who do not rush to a priest to be “shriven” (confess and be absolved) of their sins on Shrove Tuesday might remember that today, Ash Wednesday, isn’t far behind, beginning the six-week run-up to Easter. This is the time that many, even those who have long lost any affiliation to the Church, will “give something up”: chocolates, cigarettes and alcohol are top-scorers in the abstinence stakes, but essentially people give up anything on which they have grown over-reliant.
And although Lent (named after the time of year in which the days lengthen, or lenten) does not have the universal coverage of Ramadan in a Muslim culture, nevertheless, even in the secular environment of today’s Britain, you might just meet someone else who’s on the wagon for six weeks, and – who knows? – the development of will-power might be aided even by sharing the experience a little.
For Christians, however, the purpose of a Lenten fast is not to bask in an increasing sense of self-discipline, welcome though that may be. Rather, it is a time to give God the opportunity to get to work on our character (what we in the trade call “growing in grace”), so that, freed from whatever chains bind us to a less-than-satisfactory life, we might enjoy a fruitful experience of being human all the more thoroughly, becoming our liberated selves in the fullest and truest sense possible.
And all of this takes place against a backdrop of our mortality. Indeed, if you go to church on Ash Wednesday you will be told, and told straight, that you are going to die. “Remember that you are dust,” the priest tells you, as a cross is traced on your forehead in ash.
This is strong stuff in a culture where we wouldn’t dream of telling someone they were looking older, and where even to tell someone they look a bit tired can be construed as rather rude. So to come out with it full-on, and to be reminded that, however meticulously I plan, insure and keep fit, I will in fact breathe my last breath relatively soon, is a bold move. It’s also deeply liberating, giving us all the opportunity to examine our lives and to begin to use our time and energies for the things in life that really matter. For when we’re cold in the grave, the time we spent amassing a fortune or building a career, possibly at the expense of friendships or family life, may not seem as vastly important as it does right now.
And if giving something a rest for six weeks (still leaving a possible 46 weeks a year for indulgence) helps you to become a more perfect version of yourself, then it will be time well spent and may reward you with far more than the ability to fit more comfortably into an old pair of trousers or to run up a few flights of stairs without gasping for breath. Like Lent itself, the “6-46” life plan could be a real life-saver, giving you infinitely more than it temporarily takes away, affording you the sort of new life that you’d only previously dreamt of.
- Wealands Bell, pictured right, is the vicar of St Andrew’s Church, Southbridge Road, South Croydon. If you would like to pursue any of these ideas in person, come along and say hello in St Andrew’s Church, Southbridge Road, Tuesday evenings at 6.30 or Sundays at 10 and 4. It would be very good to meet you
- MAN TO MAN: Most Tuesdays, from 2.30pm to 4pm, a new group for men meets in church with a colleague and me, to discuss anything and everything as it arises, not necessarily religious, but not excluding religion and faith. Tea and coffee will be served, but nothing more intoxicating than good conversation. Do please make any men you know aware of this, especially if they would value serious and constructive conversation from time to time
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