True Lent (With a Little Help from Herrick)

The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.

So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.

Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.

IS this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.


15 thoughts on “True Lent (With a Little Help from Herrick)”

  1. I love that poem.

    I am hopefully fasting from sin or having to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty” as the Book of Common prayer confession asks us.

    Yesterday after a retinal scan it was disclosed that the Cataract in my right eye has expanded very quickly since my last scan. So, I will need surgery soon. I have to admit that my reaction to bad news was feeling a bit “Ratty”, but quickly appreciated that I have been more fortunate than the many who don’t have access to a health service which can deal with the problem, so being “ratty” was replaced by being “Grateful” for what I have and a prayer for those who “have not”.

    Not sure quite in the realms of confession, but lived experience which gives us insights into ourselves at a deeper level than our day to day lives. And to thank God for the life and gifts we have been given, with a willingness to share with the less fortunate, as Herrick displays in the Poem.

  2. Thank you sister, I intend for lent this year, to give up my judgement of what I see as perfection. I need to be more graceful in not just circumstances that suit me but in all my circumstances. Lent blessings

  3. Aha! Now I see why my old coll. has cunningly chosen this week to bombard its alumnae (all-female in my day) with appeals for donations! I suppose I’ll have to shake the moths out of my cheque book….

    What a marvellous poem — thank you!

  4. Thank you for this! I have been inspired (since starting to follow you recently on Twitter) to see Lent not so much as withdrawing from the world for reflection, but as an opportunity to give back to the world & communities around us – while still reflecting on our relationship with God. (and not ‘just’ during Lent!)
    Thank you for adding this dimension – we still need to be ‘in’ the world, influencing for good and being an encouragement to others!

    • It is, as you rightly say, both. The closer we get to God, the more generous I think we become; the more generous we are, the closer we come to God. Encouraging others can cost us a lot but it is SO important.

  5. I was so glad to read what you wrote about “giving up” Facebook and the like. I can sympathise and, I think, empathise with those who feel the need to do so – and it certainly frees up some time – but, there are always those who will miss the posts which are something of a lifeline, they say! And it is a ministry. Perhaps the biggest discipline is to stop when you have to stop…..!

    • I’m glad I have a definite time-limit for online activities, as I imagine you do, too. Some people feel unable to restrict the time they give, but that’s where being part of a community helps. The community here decided some years ago that a major part of our outreach of hospitality should be online but gave me quite a lot of freedom about how it should be developed and exercised.

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