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Angela Tilby: Lent is not a healthy-lifestyle fad

19 February 2021


I HAVE never been very good at giving things up for Lent. Here are some of my failures. First, alcohol, in 1983, repeated again the following year. The problem was that not having a glass of dry sherry before supper brought on the most appalling sugar cravings, which could be assuaged only by a large-ish pudding.

In 1998, coffee. Abstaining from that first rush of caffeine brought on worrying palpitations, only relieved by a cup of tea — which led to an unnatural interest in tea. In 2001, tomato ketchup. This was more successful. I realised that my sad passion for sausage rolls and bacon sarnies was largely because of the hit of salt and sugar in the sauce. Without it, I lost interest. After all, who really craves a bit of meat in pastry or white bread?

I have never been one of those Pelagian-minded Anglicans who insist on “doing something positive” for Lent. Nothing wrong, of course, with taking on good works, or giving more time to prayer. But I can entirely see the point of depriving oneself of a small earthly pleasure, especially in a world in which so much is so available to so many, and often at such a high cost to the rest of creation.

It is a reminder, a small stab of conscience, for those of us who are fortunate enough to live largely comfortable lives. The small act of mortifying the flesh reminds us of mortality and, perhaps more powerfully, of the fact that this earthly life is not intended to fulfil our deepest desires. We seek another homeland. If fasting and abstinence help to educate our taste for what we do not yet see, it has done its work.

What I find mildly irritating is the way in which a Lenten discipline gets subsumed into the cult of healthy eating. What begins as self-denial then ends up by doing-your-body-a-favour and stacking the odds towards longevity. This is hardly the point. If we really want to do self-denial, we might do better to live off empty calories, in solidarity with those who often have no choice. So, white bread, pasties, and forget the fruit and veg.

When I was a parish priest in Cambridge, our Ash Wednesday eucharist was a joint celebration with our patron, Corpus Christi College. Having fasted all day, I came to an arrangement with the chaplain that we would share a meal in the evening, something modest and penitential. Fortunately, there was a small restaurant near to us both (I won’t give the name) which had a menu of some 50 unlikely dishes. We had already discovered that this gustatory wealth was a sham. Whatever you ordered came coated in the same suspicious pink sauce, which entirely disguised the principal ingredient. So, we entered Lent in both spirit and body.

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