THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Brought up in that austere Catholic Ireland of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the 40 days of Lent was my penance enough to the world but, even in my annual endeavour to “give up sweets”, I always allowed myself a break on Sundays from my sacrifice and would gorge myself silly on Gob-Stoppers and Lucky Lumps to the point that any notion of eating sugary fixes throughout the week would have made me violently ill.
But boy did I make up for my 40 days in the wilderness come Easter Sunday as my younger brother and I tucked into the half dozen or so Easter eggs given to us by our extended family.
Lent back then was a time of “giving up” something, in my Father’s case his packet of 10 fags a day.These were the days too when Catholics were asked, told even, to abstain from eating meat on Fridays “as an act of penance”. The bishops, the ones who were in charge, said Fridays should be a day of penitence as it was the day on which Jesus Christ Himself was said to have died.
My brother and I would close our eyes tight and try and concentrate on poor Jesus hanging up there all alone on the Cross and He suffering for all our “auld sins”, like me kicking my brother under the table or eating them Gob-Stoppers on a Sunday in Lent. I could not concentrate for long and my thoughts soon wandered towards all those eggs I would be getting come Easter Sunday and besides poor Jesus had died a long, long time ago and there was nothing my brother nor I nor any one could do about that now.
According to the Census of 2016, out of our population of 4,761,865, a total of 3.7 million declared themselves as Roman Catholic and 126,400 as Church of Ireland. Islam was the third most popular religion in Ireland with a population of 63,400. I mention all this because the majority of, if not all, religions around the world have times of fasting or abstaining from meat and the like built into their practices. All denominations of Christianity – bar Jehovah Witnesses – as well as Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and most other religions observe such fasts during various periods of the year.
Now here’s an interesting, and perhaps little-known, fact: According to the Canons of the Roman Catholic Church, all Catholics over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. Failure to “observe this is sinful” unless you have a good excuse (sickness, pregnancy, breast feeding, extreme manual labour, take your pick).
While such a canon is still the case, I doubt if many of the acknowledged Catholics of the 2016 Census adhere to such rigid practice today. Lent, like many Catholic traditions – eating fish on Fridays, the Sodality, Confession even – has fallen from favour. Having said that, according to some reports, about 40% of the 2.3 Billion Christians in the world do adhere to the annual rigours of Lent.
I would argue that, for those who do observe such matters, Lent has evolved into more of a self-help programme for many who give up sweets, carbs or alcohol for the 40 days because they want to get fit. Do such selfish motives truly count as sacrifice? Is Lent for your God or merely for yourself to lose weight or get in shape or whatever?
If anything, Lent should not be a time to boast about how well you are following your dietary restrictions or admiring your weight loss in the mirror, but rather about quiet self-reflection and discipline. While I am not among those opting for the sack-cloth and ashes, I do proffer the opinion that a little sacrifice is good for the soul.
According to my good friend the psychiatrist from Magherafelt, eating and digesting food takes a toll on the body, and taking the odd break from such can be a good thing.
“There is some collateral damage from eating. There’s also foods that contain them old free radicals and that causes some damage to your body,” he told me at the weekend over a hearty liquid lunch.
As I replenished his glass of Mayacamas Cab Sav, he continued: “Eating is not all good. It’s necessary, but having a rest from it is probably going to give our bodies a break from those processes.”
“Do you fancy the sticky toffee pudding?” says I.