Today is the start of Lent where Catholics traditionally give up something they love. Now as a child I had to go along with this like everyone else. It was just something that was done, we never thought about it. Since becoming an Atheist, I’ve looked at Lent in a whole new light. Why does everyone celebrate a period of suffering? Why do we deprive ourselves of the joys of life? Why do we self-flagellate and call it good?
Lent comes from the time when Jesus supposedly spent 40 days in the desert without food. Now, I’m not sure how we are supposed to commemorate this event, seeing as we lack the powers of the Messiah. So rather than giving up food people just give up things they like. It has been turned into a period of self-improvement where people give up smoking, or try to lose weight or children give up sweets. It is cast as resisting temptation, as improving self-control.
However, when you think about the principle, it’s pretty nasty. The thinking is old style Catholic, that we are all sinful, bad and we must undergo penance to be forgiven. The idea is that suffering is good. When you are raised a Catholic in a Catholic country, this doesn’t sound strange, but when you think about it, it’s quite messed up. This is the logic of people who whip themselves or walk barefoot up a mountain. It’s a view of humanity as spoilt and bad, which needs to return to the pure and simple. It’s like that Patrick Kavanagh poem, “Advent”, where he glorifies sitting in a dark room with only black tea and burnt toast. It’s redemption through suffering.
Modern day lent isn’t that bad. People do things they should have done anyways, like give up smoking. In this way it’s almost like a second New Year’s resolution. However this is not the original aim of lent. Its original idea was that you would give up something you love. For example I would give up reading or drinking tea or the internet. The idea was to create suffering and offer it up. Traditionally people would fast (starve themselves) though this was stopped as part of Vatican II. Imagine that, people being told that they had to starve themselves and unnecessarily suffer, all in the name of religion.
But why is suffering good? Why is denying ourselves the pleasures of life something we do? What benefit comes from denying a child the simple joy of chocolate? Self-harm is considered horrific, yet not if religion does it. After all, what is the difference? Imagine if I choose to give up reading for lent. Instead of enjoying myself and broadening my mind with a book, I would suffer in boredom and ignorance. I would spend 40 days aimlessly wasting time staring at the ceiling. Instead of understanding the world around me, I would dwell in ignorance with only the coldness of the rosary for comfort (kneeling has got to be the most uncomfortable position which is probably why that is how you must pray). I would deprive my life of colour for the sake of “offering it up” and box myself into a grey and narrow world.
Similarly, it’s strange when you look into meaning of Ash Wednesday. I realised today that I had no idea why people put ashes on their foreheads, despite having done it (or more accurately had it done to me) many times. It turns out; it’s to remind us that we are going to die. The ashes are to remind us that one day we will die and become nothing more than dust (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). Now, that’s a depressing thought, if I ever heard one. Who in their right mind would want to tell children “Here is something to put on your head so you don’t forget that you will die and you corpse will rot and disappear.” Count me out. Today, Ash Wednesday I will not think of death or forbid myself meat (another daft and pointless rule) but instead glory in all that the world has to offer.
So, no, I won’t be giving anything up for lent. Instead, I will enjoy life and all it has to offers. Life is too short to punish ourselves for no reason. Instead we should embrace it and all it offers. Throw away the mealy-mouthed self-punishment of religion and live. Don’t deny yourselves the things you love, embrace them, savour them, enjoy them. Don’t do less, do more.