Maybe, as you read this, you’ve just begun your observation of Lent. Or maybe not.
As I write, it’s still Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. People in New Orleans are nearing the end of their Shrove Tuesday — “Fat Tuesday,” as they call it, or Mardi Gras. Their wild celebrations of excess — all part of Carnival — are about to come to a crashing end.
If you’re from a Christian background, these days might have some meaning for you: Lent is the 40 days when “adherents” make some form of sacrifice in their lives. For example, give up booze, give up meat or fat, give up smoking. 1
Shrove Tuesday vs. Lent
Shrove Tuesday is supposed to be a last-minute blow-out, a final indulgence in various sins — mortal and venal — before the long period of Lenten sacrifice.
From childhood, an English friend of mine used to talk excitedly of “Pancake Tuesday,” referring to the old tradition of using up all the eggs and fats in the house before Lent began. Pancakes were the perfect way of using them all at once and were a custom in London where he was from.
It was all about pancakes to him, not the fact that it was Shrove Tuesday. He was overjoyed to have emigrated to Canada, where you could eat pancakes every day if you wanted. Not just at a parish church function the day before Lent.
The “shrove” in Shrove Tuesday is the past tense of the verb, to shrive. It’s mainly a Catholic reference to confession: confessing sins and receiving absolution from a priest. A kind of purification.
The past participle of shrive is “shriven.”
Have you been shriven?
Much later in life, a different friend used to greet us with “Have you been shriven?” before we entered his house. He was a fierce atheist and particularly anti-Catholic. Or at least he claimed to be. The joke got rather tired after a few times.
I’d had almost no exposure to Lent until about 20 years ago. I was under the impression it was an obscure liturgical feature of the Catholic mass. But a Catholic friend demystified it for me, explaining that he simply turned off the TV for six weeks. His wife stopped eating chocolate.
It took him out of his comfort zone: allowed more time to think about God … or more important matters than the evening Netflix choice. Instead, he might spend his time walking the dog, reconnecting with neighbours, and reaching out to loved ones. The practice encouraged introspection about his life, he explained. What does he value? How could he live better?
Something believers and non-believers
Lent is supposed to be a symbolic purification that has origins in religion. I’m not a “believer” per se, but this kind of practice can be meaningful for all sorts of secular reasons. Still, it might also make us aware of the broader dimensions in our everyday lives.
What am I attached to? Are there things in my life that are unhealthy or excessive? What distracts me from a cleaner, more grounded life? And what would it mean if I gave up some of those indulgences?
These are universal questions that any person might ask if they wish to improve their life somehow. Or move forward.
These habits are usually distractions like smoke screens for things that may be more important in life. Maybe taking a break from these distractions — even for a short while — help us see clearer.
And beginning this 40-day project just before the rites of Spring (Easter) might be the best of all times to do it. Spring is the time of renewal. The earth is warming, there are buds on the trees, animals emerge from hibernation. We can reflect on what we’ve learned feel gratitude for the things that matter in our lives. And take this new wisdom with us into the season of rebirth.
Something to sacrifice
Going through Lent within the community of a church parish might have been helpful, after all, building common resolve in the company of others. There’s strength in numbers, and there is no reason why the same couldn’t be achieved with family members close friends.
There is wisdom in observing Lent, Christian or not, it seems to me. So I ask myself, “What will be my sacrifice?”
I’ve spent the past eight months changing my food and alcohol behaviours. I don’t eat or booze as much. I even eat less bread! What else can I sacrifice?
What could I live without for the next 40 days that will cause me to be more reflective of life?
There are still a few hours left in my day. I’ll let everyone know next time when I’m well into it!
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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Wikipedia — “The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for Easter through prayer, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, simple living, and self-denial. In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting, as well as giving up certain luxuries in imitation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice during his journey into the desert for 40 days; this is known as one’s Lenten sacrifice.”↩