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Column: If you're not religious, why observe a Lenten sacrifice?

As children, we used to try to get out of Lenten obligations – now we use them as if they are a second chance at New Year’s resolutions.

Lisa McInerney

I COULDN’T HELP giggling on Ash Wednesday when a pal asked her Facebook congregation whether they thought she should give up chocolate or her iPhone for Lent.

Not because I ridicule anyone’s spiritual intentions. If you’re a Catholic, then you are expected to demonstrate some sort of penitence for the Lenten season. And though I haven’t called myself Catholic (except when referring to my taste in music) for the last three years, the remnants of springtime guilt aren’t so easily brushed off. There is something so very unwholesome about gobbling éclairs this time of year, and if I, fallen as I am, still feel uneasy about proceeding as normal during Lent, then I cannot underestimate how powerful that obligation feels for the devout.

No, what tickled me was my friend’s anguish over which of her daily luxuries she should vow to do without. Her sweeties, or her smartphone. Her urge to give something up for Lent was robust, yet mostly formless. What should it be? Food? Pastimes? Snarking over social media? In the end, she lumped for chocolate. Giving up her iPhone would be far too difficult, and it definitely wouldn’t do her any good.

I’m a rural lass, so when I was a kid, everyone’s default setting was Catholic. I don’t think there was a single child in my school who subscribed to a different belief system (although we naturally suspected the girls who came from big houses, as they were more likely to be carriers of that vaguely dreadful Protestantism). Lent was the period before Easter during which you were expected not to eat sweets, and you entered it after gobbling your weight in pancakes, which then promptly disappeared from the menu for the rest of the year.

“What did you give up for Lent, Nana?” “Hope, pet.”

Things had been different for my grandmother. They had had the Missions in her day, so she’d been up to her oxters in angry zealots and their spit-flecked declarations that everyone in the Parish was doomed to sizzle. Wildly descriptive passages, sometimes with bonus sound effects, blared from the altar, and there wasn’t even chocolate egg compensation at the end of the ordeal. “What did you give up for Lent when you were small, Nana?” I’d ask, to which her melancholy response was, “Hope, pet.”

Mercifully, by the time I was old enough to make Lenten promises, the sting had all but been taken out. Some kids gave up chocolate, but not sweets. Other kids gave up sweets, but not crisps. Others were allowed to indulge all they liked on Sundays. Anyone whose birthday fell inside Lent was granted amnesty, as were the kids who attended their birthday party. Saint Patrick’s Day, of course, was as full of Refreshers, Eat-A-Yolks and Tayto candy popcorn as it was full of Guinness for our elders.

Used to these relaxed rules, as we got older we figured out other ways of getting through our Lenten obligations with the minimum of nuisance. The Trócaire Lenten Fast was very popular amongst my crowd in secondary school, as vowing to spend twenty-four hours eating nothing but soup absolved you from having to ditch the Chewits for the season. Other kids piously gave up swearing, or impertinence, or dodging homework, or basically anything else that they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.

So I got to wondering why it is that whole swathes of us who used such dastardly, slippery tactics to get out of Lenten obligation as kids still observe the tradition as adults. I mean, if you’re not a devout Catholic, why would you bother? Maybe it’s that even when we grew old enough for our parents to concede to us our own decisions, Lenten self-denial proved a habit too engrained to be shaken off. Or maybe… just too handy.

My friend who put to public vote what she should give up for Lent gave up chocolate because giving up chocolate would be corporally beneficial. Giving up an iPhone, on the other hand, wouldn’t result in anything as positive as losing a few pounds or making a substantial saving on dental bills. What benefit would it be to Jesus if you couldn’t detag unflattering photos on Facebook or find out when the next episode of Ashley Banjo’s Secret Street Crew was on? Lent is supposed to be about going out in solidarity with Jesus, right? He didn’t spend forty days in the desert because he couldn’t access Google Maps.

For most of us, Lenten denial is more a personal purge than a spiritual reinvention

The idea of binding yourself to a strict fast generally doesn’t work well within the confines of modern living. Many devout Catholics spend Lent reflecting, or performing charitable acts, or by spending more time in church. But for the rest of us, Lenten denial is more a personal purge than a spiritual reinvention. A second chance at one’s New Year’s Resolutions. Spring-cleaning. And what better personal trainer to keep you in check than someone conveniently omnipresent?

I’ve written before about pick ‘n’ choose Catholics (Cafeteria Catholics, they call them in the US) who have merged personal tradition with religious identity so successfully, they can’t tell where Lenten obligation ends and their detox diet begins. Generally, when we speak about the pick ‘n’ choosers – people who identify as Catholic but don’t follow the teachings which go against their personal moral code – we talk about how they keep the more pleasant religious traditions and ignore the more rigorous ones. For example, a lot of people marry in a Catholic church, but don’t go to Confession.

What’s intriguing about the pick ‘n’ choosers who have given up cake or fags or chardonnay for Lent is that they’re honouring one of the most inconvenient Catholic traditions of all. It’s strangely endearing that you can have a whole glut of Catholics who don’t go to Mass on Sundays because it’s archaic, or personally meaningless, or just boring, but happily refuse themselves M&Ms and frothy coffee for forty days and nights.

Why would you give up something you love for Lent, if there are much less tiresome Catholic obligations you’ve been ignoring for years? Why not spend Lent doing charitable deeds or being kind to the earth instead?

But of course, if you give up M&Ms and frothy coffee, you’re reaping the benefits in your pocket, waistband and complexion. And it’s not that self-denial is particularly difficult. It’s much easier to not do something than to take on a new challenge.

Giving up nice things for Lent might not be fun, but it’s very personally fulfilling if you succeed at it. And when we’re on a health kick, we do find structure, and camaraderie for our agonies, and visible finish lines. Which is probably why we took to organised religion in the first place.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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