Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Is this a fast?

Right.  So.  Lent. 

 I’m “doing” Lent again this year. 

I am giving up sugar.  Not manically, but fairly comprehensively.  I won’t be adding sugar to things, I won’t be eating sweets, cakes, jam or chocolate, I won’t be eating things like baked beans or ketchup or fizzy drinks (no, not even diet ones), I won’t be putting sweet sauces on foods and I won’t be  . . . well, anyway.  You get the picture.  I won’t be doing added sugar.  I’m also not going to use the more obvious sugar-replacement things (I haven’t yet broken it to my flatmate that in my head, sugar-free Angel Delight doesn’t pass the ‘exclusion’ test). 

I won’t be giving up things like bread, though I know it contains sugar.  I definitely won’t be giving up fruit juice, fruit itself, or vegetables (even sweet vegetables like carrots). 

Neither, I hope, will I be making a nuisance of myself if I’m being fed by other people.  I will say no to dessert, probably, but I won’t be checking their recipes or their cupboards to find hidden sugar in the ingredients. 

I’m also doing a “positive” Lent practice.  The UUA in the states (the Unitarian Universalist Association) have suggested a Lenten practice of taking a photograph each day on a specific subject (connection, worship, listen, feel, struggle, think, laugh, trust, grow, hospitality, generosity, heal, compassion, curiosity, memory, mindfulness, creativity, courage, community, purpose, joy, honesty, passion, play, wonder, spiritual practice, vulnerability, love, unique, beauty, humility, blessing, devotion, freedom, imagination, justice, wonder, hunger, solitude, change, hope, commitment, holy, transcend, surrender, prayer, rejoice). 

When I first read about the project, I wasn’t sure how much of a Lenten thing it was.  After all, it’s doing something a lot of people enjoy.  It’s pretty much taking up a hobby, and I’ve always got a bit cross with people who mark Lent by taking up a hobby (because I’m fairly sure Jesus didn’t go into the dessert for forty days and forty nights in order to perfect his macramé skills). 

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought “actually, this is rather good.”  By looking out for those virtues, by looking for some tangible sign of them which can be captured by an iPhone (be reasonable, I will not be remembering to take a camera out with me every day), I’m hoping to become more mindful of them.  Spending tomorrow being aware of ‘connection’, for instance, cannot possibly hurt. 

But why sugar?  Last year I gave up drinking anything-except-water for Lent.  (Not, as my flatmate took to telling people, “only drinking water,” which alarmed a lot of people who thought I was perhaps taking things a bit far).  The reasons for that were a bit clearer:  by drinking only water for forty days (okay, I had a hot chocolate on my birthday.  I didn’t ask for a birthday which would always be in Lent, did I?  And in case Nick’s reading, yes, I forgot that day when he had breakfast and downed a very delicious glass of orange juice) I became very mindful of the blessing it is to be able to make that choice.  It’s a very Western privilege to be able to say that drinking nothing but as much clean fresh water as you like is a sacrifice.  I think most of the time when I drank something during Lent I was able to be grateful for it. 

That seemed like a meaningful thing to do for Lent.  It was enough of a challenge to be worth doing, but it wasn’t going to make me miserable, and it helped with a mindful practice. 

Sugar, though.  Well, like most of our modern Lent practices, there’s a very definite health benefit to seeing this one through to the end (birthday cake caveats apply).  I think we’re deluding ourselves if we don’t admit that a lot of what we do for Lent benefits us physically as well as spiritually.  And that’s fine. 

So part of it, yes, is that I eat way too much sugary stuff and need to stop it.  I could, of course, just stop eating sugar at any point in the year.  But by doing it at Lent there’s less of a need to explain, and more of a likelihood of taking other people with you. 

I’m blessed that my flatmate has also decided to join in, partly in support of her girlfriend, who has diabetes.  And two college colleagues also fancied the idea, so they’re doing it too.  (We did have one amusing-in-hindsight conversation about how it might be hard when we’re all on a long weekend trip to Romania, on account of having to explain it.  We’re visiting a theological college.  It seems highly likely to me they’ll be comfortable with the concept!)

Are there spiritual benefits?  I think there are.  If you think there aren’t, that’s fine – there wouldn’t be for you.  But I think there are, for me.  Most of us never have to really think about what we can and can’t eat.  If I become conscious, when I want sugar, that I can’t have it but that I can have something else, and that that makes me, in world terms, bloody lucky, and if that reminds me to be grateful, then that’s a spiritual benefit. 

Do I think God (terms and conditions apply with this term, as most of you know) cares whether I give up sugar for Lent or not?  No, I don’t.  Not much.  I think he might care if I become more mindful of my preposterous good fortune, and more concerned for those who don’t share it. 

Do I think it would do my relationship with God good to have some time to meditate on all this stuff?  Yes, I do. 

I do think that if you’re going to do Lent, it does have to involve some sacrifice.  That may be a challenging word, and it may not be a very Unitarian word, but it’ll do.  I could just give up chocolate, but I can live without chocolate fairly easily, if I’m honest.  I already don’t drink or smoke or gamble or spend vast amounts on clothes, shoes, or beauty products (I’ve only just discovered the joys of nail varnish, and that’s half-vanity, half nail-biting-prevention, so that’s staying). 

I can’t do a “proper” fast.  Though by “can’t” I probably mean “don’t wanna.”  I don’t think I have the physical or the emotional or the spiritual stamina to either fast during daylight hours and eat at night or to eat only what I strictly need to stay alive.  And yes, I know how lucky I am to have that as a choice. 

But also, I don’t think Lent should be about misery.  In a service I did at the Octagon a few years ago I had this poem as a reading (I’m specifying that, because it was read in a Radio Four programme very recently and I’m insecure enough and enough of a show off that I want to be clear I knew it before then!): 

To Keep a True Lent, by Robert Herrick 1591 – 1674

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent ;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

But marking Lent is important to me.  Because the Lent-and-Easter story is important to me (later on, if you stick with it, you might hear why).  I’ve been asked what’s the point of a Unitarian bothering with Lent – and it’s a good enough question.  I may answer that more fully, too. 

Tonight, after dinner and before bed, I am going to be slowly and mindfully eating the very bag of Revels pictured above.  And because I am a theist, and the sort of theist who believes that God loves me – me, personally – I am quietly confident that God will not arrange things so that the last sweetie I eat before Lent is either a peanut one or a toffee one.  I won’t try and hold out for an orange one though.  I’m a realist too.  

No comments:

Post a Comment