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The lax labours of Lenten penance

GERALD WARNER says we have become too self-indulgent and casual with our pre-Easter duties.

LENT is a term that can be relied upon to bring a sensation of discomfort to Catholics. The reactions it provokes vary from ‘Oh no, is it that time of year already?’ or ‘Here we go again,’ to ‘What on earth am I going to give up this year?’

In the wider scheme of things, away from our own petty preoccupations about how to observe Lent, it is obviously of great importance to commemorate Our Lord’s Passion and death by entering into a period of self-mortification. The Church has always done so, but the ways in which it has fulfilled this obligation historically were far from being the seamless narrative that most people presume them to have been.

In the early days of the Church, while the pre-Easter fast was universally observed, that observance was far from uniform and many historians believe the 40 days’ fast was not of Apostolic institution. Instead, there seems to have been a perception of every Sunday as a kind of Easter and every Friday as a commemoration of Calvary. That was understandable when the date of Easter was a matter of dispute.

By 331, however, St Athanasius was enjoining his flock in Alexandria to fast for 40 days; but this was only a preliminary to a very severe fast in Holy Week. Our ancestors were no slouches when it came to self-mortification and if some of their prescribed periods of fasting appear short, that is probably because a longer participation in such severe self-denial would probably have killed them. Even in relatively modern times elderly people have an anecdotal recollection of ‘the Black Fast’ in Ireland.

By the early Middle Ages, in a society in which the majority of the population laboured on the land and fasting had reached health-endangering proportions, the need for some concessions was acknowledged. The most important were permission to drink water and the emergence of the concept of the ‘collation’—a snack not exceeding eight ounces–which today is relevant only to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the sole remaining feasts of fast and abstinence.

We have it incredibly easy, compared with even our recent ancestors. Of course, the slight mortifications prescribed by the Church today represent a minimal commitment: there is nothing to prevent a truly devout Catholic from fasting as hard as he likes in an earnest desire to share in the privations of Christ’s 40 days in the desert, to commemorate his Passion worthily.

If we are honest with ourselves and confront the supposed problems of our 21st century Lenten observance in a critical spirit of self-derision, many of our experiences are verging on the comical. Sometimes the arrival of Ash Wednesday catches Catholics still undecided what to do for Lent. Then the decision is postponed to the First Sunday in Lent, when it is made untidily and Lenten penance begins unsatisfactorily.

Mostly these badly observed Lents arise from an unwise decision to do something ‘different’ this year. Why? If we have found a successful formula over, say, the previous three years, why do we feel the need to improvise? If, of course, it is out of a desire to be more severe with ourselves and undertake a more robust penance, then that is laudable and well-intentioned. But good intentions are not much use if we have failed to consider the practicalities of the proposed new regime.


If our Lenten penance clashes with family arrangements, or poses problems for someone else, we would do better to revert to the previous year’s unimaginative but proven regime. Every Catholic has experienced the phenomenon of a Lenten observance that almost seems jinxed. Somehow the intended penitential routine falls apart, leaving a feeling of failure and inadequacy, though the unsatisfactory situation may be due to external factors.

There is still every possibility of salvaging a good Lent. We can make a resolution to regroup and re-discipline ourselves on, for example, Passion Sunday, so that if we have a mediocre Lent we can still have a spiritually rewarding Passiontide. If all else fails we can at least attempt a strict observance of Holy Week, or even just the Sacred Triduum. It is never too late until Easter Sunday.

As for the vexed question of what penance to settle on for Lent, the classic formula remains a good one: do a negative and a positive, i.e. give up something (alcohol, sweets, etc) and do something extra (prayer, spiritual reading, etc). We must not deceive ourselves, though many of us do.

There is no point in eschewing alcohol if one habitually drinks just one glass of sherry a week. Charitably visiting an elderly person is good, unless it becomes evident the beneficiary is unsettled, bored or irritated by our presence. That is the important thing to remember: Lent is not about us.



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