This is a post reflecting on what I learned from a Lenten fast from alcohol and dessert — a fast that ends today, with Easter. In four hours I will eat coconut pie. (Sigh of joy.)
What I learned from 46 days of attempting to keep this Lenten vow was this: fasting from alcohol and sweets was hard, exposing hungers that I did not like. But it was also surprisingly meaningful and even transformative. I was reminded of the great wisdom of this ancient Christian practice.
The tradition of observing Lent, and of making some kind of disciplined sacrifice as part of that observation, goes back very deep in Christian history, and has made a strong recent revival. Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday until Easter, six and a half weeks. Lent can be taken in a variety of directions, but the basic idea is a period of penitence, reflection, and purposeful deepening of Christian commitment in view of the central events of the Christian story, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This year my wife and I together decided to abstain from alcohol and sweets for Lent. We made an exception for Valentine’s Day and one Sunday on vacation.
Just for context: our ordinary practice as a couple with grown children is that we have dessert maybe three times a week and a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week. One would not think that moving from this limited practice to zero would be all that hard.
Here is how I experienced it. When my wife and I have alcohol or dessert it is almost always associated with a broader experience we also find pleasing. We have dessert one time each week at family dinner, when the kids come over. We have a glass of wine and maybe dessert one or two nights out together as a couple each week. Thus we were stripping some of the pleasure out of our most pleasing weekly experiences, in which partaking of alcohol and/or dessert was a long-established habit.
Could we break this habit? Would these events still be fun if alcohol and sugar were not part of them?
The answer turned out to be yes. At first we struggled with a feeling of withdrawal and a yearning for the forbidden tastes. But our habits changed to match the religious vow we had made. By the end of Lent we could easily see others around us indulging in wine, or dessert, without feeling deprived.
There were a handful of times during Lent that I really wanted to break my vow, and one time when I did break it. I realized that these yearnings came when I was dealing with work-related stress. Once it was because we had gotten bad news about the health of a member of my family. I didn’t like this realization — that I felt a yearning for alcohol to relieve stress. “I could really use a drink right now” — that’s not who I want to be. Nor do I want to need a sugar rush to feel happy. This was revelatory.
“Giving up something for Lent” may seem like an odd, archaic, or legalistic practice. Why voluntarily deprive yourself of something harmless when there is no biblical mandate to do so? Ah, but that’s thinking like a (certain kind of) Protestant. The older Christian tradition concluded long ago that periods of especially intense, focused spiritual and moral effort, including a measure of sacrifice, can be good for us. And doing it together with other Christians can be good for the community as a whole.
It’s partly about having to make a real commitment, to pay some kind of price for a faith which we can otherwise take for granted. We do that with every other area of life that we care about. Why should faith be any different? This speaks to the “half-churched Christian” problem I mentioned in a recent post.
It’s also about doing something embodied rather than having a faith that’s merely cognitive or spiritual. It’s about getting better at keeping promises to God and also to others. It’s about submitting to the wisdom and tradition of the Church rather than going it alone. It’s about tightening up discipline in one area, which may prove salutary in other areas as well. And in some pitifully small way it’s about taking upon oneself, as an expression of gratitude, some very small measure of sacrifice, in response to the total self-sacrifice of Jesus in his life and on the Cross.
Now, off to the gym. And then to that coconut pie, and the family gathered to enjoy it together at Easter dinner.