Tag Archives: Lent

Giving things up

Shrove Tuesday came by this week, and many people will have feasted on pancakes with no intention of giving anything up for Lent, just swinging in for the chocolate feast at Easter. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of Lent – to me it too often looks like privilege playing at doing without, safe in the knowledge that it’s temporary.

Those of us who have more than enough really do need to think about giving things up – not for Lent, but forever. We use more than the planet can sustain. We take more than we need. Our very notion of ‘need’ is framed by a constant supply of adverts that tell us to consume, throw away and consume more. Here’s a list of things we all need to cut back on, and if possible, give up entirely. Not for the next few weeks, but forever.

  1. Food Waste. We throw away an obscene amount of food. The impact of this, plus the impact of growing it only to waste it is appalling. Nothing should die only to be thrown away. To reduce food waste you have to look hard at your buying and storing habits, your meal strategies and how you use leftovers. It can be done.
  2. Throwing away clothes. This has a higher environmental impact than flying. Wearable clothes should be given to charity shops or freecycled. Damaged clothes can be upcycled and used for crafting. No wearable item of clothing should ever be sent to landfill.
  3. Driving is a tricky one because many of us live in places with centralised resources, designed with car driving in mind. For people with mobility issues, doing without a car may not be feasible. However, cutting down on car use, exploring car shares, walking and cycling when possible, and cutting back on non-essential journeys can all help. Demand better and more affordable public transport.
  4. Flying. I think we all know about this one. If you want to keep doing it, consider going the extra distance with some other aspect of your life to try and offset it.
  5. Buying water in bottles.


There are many other possibilities to explore as well. Food miles. Plastic packaging. Use of animal products. The number of children you have. How big a house you need. If you drive, what kind of car you drive. What you do at work. What the company you work for does. Every aspect of our lives should be open to our scrutiny and questioning. This is not a comfortable process, often. It calls on us to do without things we’ve persuaded ourselves we deserve, or are entitled to. It calls upon us to accept what we may think of as a lower standard of living.

The next one for me has to be a move to cut back on non-recyclable plastics, which is going to be tough, and has to be balanced against nutritional needs, and affordability. I know I can’t go zero impact on this one, but I can do better than I am at present.

Give something up – not for Lent, but for life.

Pagans at Lent

Lent is a festival that exists in a context of tradition, and the cycle of the seasons. For our ancestors, Shrove Tuesday was the time when you used up the last of the fat, flour and eggs, making the pancakes. That which had been stored from the previous year would tend to run out somewhere around now, while new resources would not yet be reliably available. The thin weeks that were an inevitable consequence, became Lent. Making a virtue out of necessity, and a spiritual experience out of the hard times is a good, pragmatic response. It wasn’t a case of giving up one luxury of choice, it was a case of having very little to live on.

With our complex supply chains and supermarkets, the majority of us do not expect to feel the pinch at this time of year. We are disconnected from the cycles of the land. A Pagan might therefore consider joining in with Lent in order to connect with their ancestors, and to re-connect with an agricultural wheel that wasn’t persistently bountiful. Of course if you aren’t in Europe, you may have a wildly different seasonal situation to consider, and that should be taken into account.

For many, the quarterly power bills came out over the last few weeks. Winter is the time we need most light and heating. If you were a bit marginal with the money, it may well be that the coming of the winter bill creates a need to cut back and save money in the coming months. Modern fuel poverty may well re-invent Lent as a practical necessity for some.

When I was a child, back in the eighties, giving up something for Lent was common in the community around me. However, I did not see much of it as a spiritual practice. Competitive self-denial, self-aggrandisement through a personal martyrdom where the difficulty of the sacrifice was much emphasised… when you have a great deal, giving up some small thing is not as difficult or as noble as we might like to imagine. It’s also a very long way from genuine privation.

If you are thinking about Lent at all, it is worth sparing a thought for the many who are fasting and doing without luxuries. Not the people who do it by choice, but the ones so knocked down by life that they now depend on food from foodbanks. More specifically, the kind of food you can heat with water from a kettle, because they have no money for gas or electricity. For many, the experience of fasting and abstinence is not sought, or used for spiritual purposes. It is a harsh reality, and it will not magically end when the Easter eggs hit the shops.

To give up one chosen thing for Lent, as a personal exercise, seems highly suspect in this context. If you are going to make some kind of sacrifice, do it for the good of someone else who is in need. Giving your luxury foodstuffs to a foodbank for the month might be a lot more meaningful than just not buying them. I’m seeing online people taking this as a prompt to switch over to fair trade goods, or to bring other ethical considerations to their shopping.

Fasting as a practice was common for ancestors in many traditions across the globe. It has a very different feel and context when you also know what it means to give up and cut back out of necessity. We don’t have a good collective sense of the difference between necessity and luxury, nor much collective sense of what it means to lack for necessities. I think this lack of awareness contributes to our collective lack of action and compassion over people in abject poverty. Too many of us have no idea what that means, and when you look at undertaking it that way, fasting for Lent could be a very productive cultural activity indeed.

No abstaining for pagans?

It’s Lent, not that I’ve seen much evidence of it this year. Back in my childhood, people talked about giving things up for Lent, some of them possibly did, but there doesn’t seem to be much of that happening right now. Abstinence isn’t very sexy.

We associate self denial with Christianity, and a mindset that rejects worldly things as bad for the soul. This is not an attitude that is ever going to work for pagans. Spirit is manifest in nature, in physical, material things. Through bodily experience we know the world, present to our physical selves, we connect and celebrate joyfully. No hair shirts for us.

There are folk who see pagans as hedonists, all self indulgent, pleasure seeking and superficial. Tree hugging feel good hippies with no spiritual discipline, no substantial bones under our carefree flesh. Are self denial and discipline the same things? No. In fact, it can be a lot more complicated. My other identity edits erotica. Pain, punishment, self denial, forced abstention and even chastity can be the foci of fetish. Too much ‘abstention’ can in fact create an obsession with the flesh and all things worldly. The aesthetic of Puritanism can become a vanity, an affectation. Anything taken to extremes can become far more about the ego of the person doing it, their ‘holier than thou’ state, and not about spirituality at all.

Pagans don’t tend to think there’s much point punishing ourselves for imagined sins. Life is plenty hard enough without having to beat yourself up as well. But abstaining is a whole different process, and there are reasons to explore it that are neither about self aggrandisement, nor self flagellation.

1) To find out if you actually need it. Sometimes in giving things up for a while, we can better see how, or if they fit into our lives. It’s an experiment, a learning process, with no assumption that we should go either way at the end of it. Keep, do not keep…

2) So that we can celebrate our appreciation of what we have temporarily denied ourselves. Sit on a hill all night to watch the sunrise, and you will marvel at the wonder of your duvet, the sheer poetry of a mattress and the modern miracle that is your hot shower. Short abstentions help keep life in perspective.

3) To change how we feel or think – this is especially true of things we imbibe. Cutting back on stimulants like refined sugar can affect the mind.

4) For environmental reasons. We give up things we have enjoyed because we know they aren’t sustainable, and we want to do our bit.

5) As part of an inner cleansing process, a ritual lasting over days as we transition – so we might choose to do without sleep, or sex, or perhaps even food for a short period because we need the space not having it gives us, as we do something else.

No doubt there are other reasons too, and more personal, harder to explain motives that inspire us to reduce, abandon and rethink aspects of our lives. There is no fixed time of year for a pagan to do this. We might be inspired by the dying back of autumn, or by this hard spring season when for our ancestors, Lent made a virtue out of necessity. Last year’s stores will have almost gone. This year’s crops are not yet ready. Food would have been scarce.

We choose to give things up, long or short term, not because we think we should, or that God will put a little star on a chart for us. We don’t tend to imagine anyone is keeping score. If we give something up, we do it for a reason, and that reason is down to us to decide. Sometimes, giving things up is good for the soul, sometimes it isn’t, and that’s a thing you only find out by exploring it yourself, if it speaks to you. It’s such a private thing to do, as well, with little scope for tapping into the kind of public support Lent abstentions might once have brought people. If you’re giving something up for health reasons, friends and family will cheer you on, but if your motive is some quiet, personal, spiritual expression, sticking to your course will go largely unnoticed and unremarked. It takes a lot of discipline to do that.