Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Why I finally gave up giving up for Lent

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

Ateacher at school once asked us "Who knows the meaning of Lent?" Blank looks all round. I decided to venture a suggestion, even though I was terrified of the teacher who was a nun.

"Isn't it when you borrow somebody something?"

"No, no no! I mean Lent in the Biblical sense, stupid girl!" I felt like Pike off Dad's Army. "Well ... er ... in the Bible, didn't somebody lend someone thirty pieces of silver?"

That in a sentence just about summed up my interest and attention span in matters of religious education. And at a convent school, they tend to make everything into a matter of religious education.

I only really listened at the exciting bits I could visualise – that snake, the lepers, Satan, slayings, the bleeding head of John the Baptist on a silver salver, swarming plagues of locusts, bloodstained doors at Passover and that drawstring bag of gleaming silver coins that clinked as they were thrown through the air were the only parts of the story where my ears pricked up. I filled the rest in for myself with daydreams.

Consequently, I ended up with a very confused and disjointed grasp of the subject. And to this day I still don't really understand most of it, especially the concept of Lent.

The idea seems to be that if you deprive yourself of something you enjoy, then that makes you a good person.

Now, that would be understandable if, in doing so, someone else benefits in some way. For example, if the money you saved in the process went to a worthy cause.

But today that doesn't seem to be the aim or objective of fasting. The most common one would be giving up alcohol and it is treated like an annual detox.

Of course, it's commendable having the willpower, but as far as I can see most people purge themselves for forty days simply so they can have a monumental blow-out on the Easter weekend. Who benefits from that?

Others simply laugh it off as a joke. Homer Simpson, for example, said: "For Lent I'm giving up certain rum-based cocktails", like that was going to be a really tough challenge, even though we all know he doesn't like rum.

But back to schooldays when we weren't allowed to joke about such things, we were always ritually asked what we were giving up for Lent.

"I'm going to give up sweets," I always said but never did, because I kept a secret stash in my sock drawer.

The money we saved as a group went into a jar for Trocaire or Cafod but I still bought emergency Love Hearts and Black Jacks for when Beelzebub got the better of me and then asked my mum for the collection money. It's the thought that counts, as they say, and in this case I thought about it but mum did it.

Nevertheless, although I'd long since stopped going to church, giving up something for Lent was a tradition that I continued into adulthood and always, without fail, failed at.

So a few years ago I decided to approach it in a different way.

Rather than depriving myself half-heartedly for a few days, I decided to be active instead of passive; to start something new that would benefit others instead of just myself.

It became like a New Year's resolution for the new season of spring which, in many ways, suited me better as a sort-of born-again Pagan.

Last year, for example, I began working a few afternoons a week with Alzheimer's sufferers at a local nursing home. It was a wonderful experience which I really enjoyed while it lasted.

I'm hoping that this year's Lenten resolution will be a greater success and will last a lot longer. To that end, earlier this week I registered as a volunteer with the Welcome Daycare Centre in Belfast which is a charitable organisation that provides unconditional support, food and shelter to the homeless. Pending all the usual security checks, I'll be cooking meals and arranging activities for the visitors on a weekly basis.

Of course, I'll keep you all updated by occasionally sharing my experiences in this column, in the hope that as a result some of you might wish to get involved too.

Wish me luck and watch this space!

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