|Pretzels: perfect food designed for Lent (see below)|
Photo by Sundar1 and published under a creative commons
licence (source: Wikimedia Commons)
In the past, most Latin Christians would have given up all meat for Lent, as well as dairy products and wine. This major abstinence from luxurious food was merely the foundation for all the other Lenten penances that our ancestors would also have embraced. Needless to say, most would have increased their spiritual and corporal works of mercy during the forty days that lead up to Easter. Of course, many also fasted on only one meal a day throughout Lent, whilst some even went as far as to only eat one or two small meals a week. To this day, most Eastern Christians observe Lent in a far stricter way than their brothers and sisters in the Western Church. Many Orthodox and Eastern Rite Christians still abstain totally from meat, alcohol, milk, butter, cheese and eggs throughout springtime's penitential season.
Sadly, it seems to me that many Latin Rite Catholics are under the impression that giving up a chocolate bar or some biscuits for Lent is a great achievement, especially if they also read a 'spiritual' book (or some such thing) as an added 'good deed'. But if we consider some of our Lenten observances with objective honestly, are they really that impressive? Is giving up a glass of wine a week or cutting down on a smoking habit something that would inspire those outside the Church to want to know more about our faith? Will symbolic gestures like this really shake us to the core, as happens with great fasts? Can we expect non-Christians to think that we are truly dedicated to Our Lord if, in answer to a question about Lent, we tell them something like: "I'm not going to eat a Mars bar for forty days in preparation for the most important feast of my faith?" For this reason, I have more admiration for those Eastern Christians who actually discipline the senses and impose a real fast on their bodies during Lent, than I do for those of us in the Western Church who seem to think that the holy season is about cutting down on the odd sweet or ginger hob-nob!
In Holland, Lent is sometimes called the "Christian Ramadan"!
Many would agree that the corporate act of fasting observed by Muslims during Ramadan is a very powerful witness to their faith. The dedication they show to their penitential season (if it is right to call it that) often puts us Christians to shame. And in doing so, they reap the rewards of being able to attract more converts to their religion - all those men and women who thirst for a belief system that actually requires self-sacrifice, discipline and dedication. By appearing to go hungry for a month, many Muslims attract numerous spiritually hungry and searching souls to their mosques. This, for Christians, should be a great scandal - for surely, Lent can be (and is, when properly lived out) a far more inspiring season than Ramadan.
Some have argued, quite successfully in my opinion, that the Muslim month of fast, alms-giving and prayer, called Ramadan, was adopted from those Christian practices of observing Lent popular in the seventh century. It is probably true to say that Muhammed was deeply impressed by the ascetic Lenten fasts of those Christians whom he knew - including the desert monks and members of his own family. Not wanting his followers to be attracted to the Christian faith by those whose devotion was stronger than theirs, it seems likely that he wanted his own religion to also have a penitential season - a time when every believer would join together to witnesses to the power of their faith by acts of self-sacrifice. But sometimes Ramadan, which leads up to the festival of Eid Al-Fitr, is often more about the appearance of fasting than any real or sane abstention from food.
Whilst at university, I had many Muslim friends - some of whom, through God's grace, ended up becoming followers of Christ. At the time, I respected my friends' seemingly rigorous observance of Ramadan, whilst they also appeared to admire the penances that some Christians performed during Lent. But what I soon realised was that lots of my Muslim friends would turn up to lectures or other events with bloated bellies during the mornings of Ramadan. After questioning them, they would often report that they'd spent the hour before dawn consuming enough food to feed a horse! During the day, though, they would go on to refuse the tiniest morsel or cup of water, which often led to irascibility or fainting spells! After sunset they would gorge once more on a splendid banquet, called the iftar. I eventually concluded that there was nothing very admirable about Ramadan. In fact, the whole process seemed to me to be more like corporate bulimia than a month-long act of penance.
Having said that, I did admire the dedication to their faith shown by these Muslim friends of mine. They were obviously making a great effort in attempting to witness to their faith in God, and increase their understanding of him, through such radical fasting. Dare I say, at the time they put me and my friends in the university's Catholic Society to shame. We'd been told that Lent should be more about helping others than fasting - which often led me, at least, to forget all about abstaining from food and, as a consequence of this, not really feeling that Lent (and, therefore, alms-giving during it) was that important. The Muslim type of seasonal fasting may have been bulimic, but our (or, should I say, my) Catholic efforts seemed flippantly anaemic!
When observed with effort, Lent can become a "powerful call to faith"
One of the reasons given by the Bishops' Conference for reimposing the Friday abstinence in England and Wales was its value as a corporate witness to the Catholic faith. In fact, in a press release issued after it had been decided to reintroduce the Friday abstinence from meat, the Bishops of England and Wales "recognise[d] that simple acts of witness, accompanied by sincere prayer, can be a powerful call to faith." They also said that "the role of devotions and the practice of penance ... help to weave the Catholic faith into the fabric of everyday life." The Bishops' press statement went on to stress that "it is important that all the faithful again be united in a common, identifiable act of Friday penance because they recognise that the virtue of penitence is best acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness."
Needless to say, the Bishops of England and Wales are to be commended for reintroducing the much loved and valued Friday abstinence, which most traditional Catholics had adhered to anyway. In reimposing the law that requires Catholics to abstain from meat on the day we remember the Lord's Passion and Death, it is interesting to note that the Bishops' Conference recognised the value of such corporate acts of penance in witnessing to the Catholic faith. Many agnostics and those with no faith through no fault of their own do genuinely admire men and women who are, through faith, able to deny their basic wants for a greater good. Many are also attracted to communities that are so united in their practices that they seem to form one body of belief, a society where all are united in mind and heart (cf Acts 4:32). This is, in part, why so many in the UK are drawn to Islam, and why it has become - at the Gospel's expense - the fastest growing religion in Europe.
If we actually took it more seriously, then, I believe that Lent could become once more a great statement of faith to the world around us. Many people are interested to learn more about Islam when they notice their colleagues fainting through hunger during Ramadan. In like manner, interest in Catholicism would rise if Catholics really made more of an effort during the holy season of Lent. (Just to clarify: I am not advocating mass fainting or a bulimic sort of Lenten fast!). If I were an objective observer and I saw how Muslims during Ramadan seem to be far more willing to fast properly than Christians are during Lent, I am sure that I would - through sheer human respect - be more interested in knowing more about Muhammed than Christ. In that respect, I thank God for the fact that Christ chose to know more about me before I was left to my own devices as a teenage agnostic!
What's the point giving up a candy bar? Let's fast with dignity!
If we're honest, is there anything to be gained at all by giving up a candy bar or a biscuit for Lent? Such nonsense fasting is counter-productive if anything. If we are to fast: Fast. If we are just going to give up the odd sweet, then what are we really saying? Does our faith and spiritual life mean so little to us that we imagine that anything of any worth can be achieved by "giving up" chewing-gum or Maltesers? Such forms of minor abstinences - though basically good - seem to mock those profound and transformative fasts and penances that our ancestors undertook.
So what should we do? Well, first of all, why not seriously consider giving up meat and / or dairy products for the next forty days? Unless we're physically ill, what harm can it do? I am sure that the benefits of such a discipline would far outweigh the discomfort of mild hunger pains or weakened bodies. Also, it may be good to remember that Lent is not really a time to be going out to parties, listening to loud music, and so on - what sort of penitential season would it be if we were constantly running about and feeding our senses like maniacs? (Of, course, this does not mean that we should "put on gloomy faces like hypocrites", cf Mt 6:16)
Lent is about stripping everything away - including food and drink. In that sense, it is about detachment - even from the internet! - as a means of preparing ourselves to encounter God. Just as death strips us bare before the Lord, Lent should aid in a similar way - so that when Easter comes we may encounter the Risen Christ, whom we also hope to meet at life's end.
Those who would really like to enter into the spirit of Lent may like to consider substituting some meals with pretzels? Did you know that these little savoury snacks were first invented as a type of Lenten food? In fact, there is evidence to suggest that pretzels were invented by monks in the seventh century, and that their design represents arms at prayer - in the past, and still today in the East, Christians would often fold their aims across their chests to pray or when receiving holy communion.
Until a few weeks ago, I knew very little about pretzels - except that the last US President nearly died eating one! But I have now become convinced that these dough-based snacks would be ideal collations during Lent. In fact, there was a time when many Catholics only ate pretzels throughout the Lenten season. I may not be able or willing to go that far, but I am more than prepared to try living on pretzels and water for the Fridays of Lent... Such penance may even do my waist size some good!
Let's not forget about fasting when concentrating on alms-giving and prayer
Last year, I wrote about the three things that we Christians should practice with greater zeal during Lent: fasting, alms-giving and prayer. All three, as Pope Benedict XVI mentioned in his recently published message for Lent, demonstrate a willingness to love God, ourselves and our neighbours. They witness to the fact that, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, we should be "concerned for each other" (Heb 10:24). This year, though, I wished to highlight the transformative nature of Lenten abstinence from food and drink, mainly because I have become rather fed up of hearing Ash Wednesday homilies that often exhort us to forget about the fasting part of Lent - "instead of giving something up, why not taken something up, like reading a book" (Grrr!).
Profound fasting helps us keep control over our own bodies (cf 1 Cor 9:27), grants us a way of engaging in corporate penance, leads to to a greater reverence toward's Christ's suffering, and induces in us a sense of mourning a) for ours sins and b) for the fact that the "bridegroom is no longer with us" (cf Mk 2:20). But, more importantly, a corporate and radical fast during Lent it a powerful witness to our faith. A strict and discomforting fast over a long period also leads to a greater reliance on God, and respect for the things of God.
Like Christ in the desert, those who truly fast during Lent may be taken to the brink, and may even come face to face with the evil one. By the gift of perseverance, though, those who commit to a profound fast will also eventually come to discern God's will, entering even more deeply into that Kingdom called Heaven.