Lent in Lockdown looms on the horizon. In normal times, Lent is a time for stepping back from our usual habits and preoccupations – making temporary changes in the pattern of everyday life for the sake of ‘re-setting’ the soul. But these are not normal times, and the idea of taking on some short-term, self-limiting practices for Lent is somewhat lost in the rather longer-term and compulsory limitations of the pandemic.
What would we normally do in Lent that we can’t do now? We normally think of limiting our diet in some way, perhaps walking some pilgrimage routes, joining a Lent book group or prayer group . . . This year, though, these may be either too burdensome to be helpful, or practically impossible. What can we do to make Lockdown Lent a season that feeds the soul?
Fasting comes in multiple forms — giving up just one food or food group, giving up one meal a day, fasting through the daylight hours . . . Not everyone can fast safely, but even for those who can, I wonder whether lockdown may be a circumstance that doesn’t invite fasting? Fasting takes a good deal of mental and physical strength, and after long months of pandemic restrictions, whatever makes us stronger, healthier, and disease-resistant must surely take precedence. When I was researching for my Lent book, Giving it Up, I read about fasting practices across medieval Europe. Fasting was certainly deemed to be good for the soul, but it was also linked to the seasonal availability of food, which was more scarce towards the end of winter (with Europe experiencing Lent in the northern hemisphere), with fasting as a community exercise rather than an individual practice, and with giving to the poor, as all money that was not spent on food was saved to help the poor. And, of course, the fast was broken intermittently when there was a saint’s day. I am wondering what a Lockdown Lent would look like if, rather than focusing on self-denial, we focused on these things. What if, for instance, we were to spend the weeks of Lent learning how to cook and eat using locally sourced ingredients? — a creative challenge, rather than a self-denying one, but also a positive response to the ecological crisis we are in. What if, for instance, we made community commitments instead of imposing self-denial on ourselves individually? — not only saving us from Lenten burdens we can’t bear, but keeping us connected to others during these difficult months of physical separation from family, friends, and church community. What if we focused our Lent disciplines specifically towards giving to the poor, or to some charity? And what if we found 46 saints to celebrate, gathering strength and inspiration from their lives and thoughts, instead of just giving up chocolate? It’s all too easy to turn Lent into a season of ‘self-improvement’ (which, theologically speaking, is the absolute opposite of the point!) — if we are going to feed our souls this Lent, we will need some Lockdown friendly practices. I would suggest that an isolated form of self-denial is the last thing we should be doing, and this year — for me at least — keeping Lent is going to be about finding joy, not about self-denial. Here are some ways that I’m planning to subvert Lent into a sustaining, joy-filled season:
St Megingaud, and all the saints. I adapted Advent 2020 by putting up my Christmas Tree on November 27th and hanging small linen bags on the branches. Each bag contained a small gift, one for every day of Advent. The gifts were worth less than £1 in almost every case — some were home-made, some were comical — the point was not the value of the gift, but simply to inject a moment of joy into every day of this dark winter, all the way from November to Candlemas. Now, there is a long tradition in Lent of breaking the fast for saints’ days. I made use of this tradition once before, when my Chapel congregation wanted to celebrate my (mid-Lent) birthday, but one had given up chocolate, and another had given up cakes . . . A little research gave us a selection of saints to choose from, the most peaceful of whom was St Megingaud, who neither led an exciting life, nor ended up martyred for his faith, but served his God faithfully and then lived out his days tending his orchards. Megingaud was my kind of saint, and my birthday became ‘St Megingaud’s Day’, duly celebrated with tea and chocolate cake at the local café. Lent 2021? A little more research reveals that there are plenty of saints to choose from, for every day of Lent. Instead of self-denial, how about getting acquainted with 46 saints you never knew about before, and taking their lives and thoughts as inspiration for the journey? I’ll post some up here to get you started . . .
Armchair Pilgrims. Some people make pilgrimages through Lent, but the fact that we can’t travel means that this practice will need to be adapted. We may not be able to fly to the Camino, or take a train to the South Downs or Holy Island. But we can go walking straight from our own front door. Like many people, lockdown has led me to discover all manner of local walks through streets I never knew about, and longer routes out into the nearby countryside.Pilgrimages, of course, are usually thought of as physical journeys, but what if you can’t go out, or can’t go far? How can you have a pilgrim soul if you aren’t able to make a lengthy journey away from home? Xavier de Maistre famously wrote about travelling the whole world without ever leaving his room, and when I wrote my memoir, The Accidental Pilgrim (Kindle Edition here), I devoted a whole chapter to the idea of being an ‘armchair pilgrim’ — exploring the world without ever leaving your kitchen. Books, art, movies and music can be our windows on to the world — not necessarily those that are written especially for Lent. Cycling Home from Siberia is the kind of book that takes you on a journey with the author, opening up a visceral sense of place and experience. And you might not be able to walk The Camino this year, but you can read a brilliant account of it in Along the Way — or watch the movie The Way that inspired the book.
Kitchen mini-break. As pilgrimage is off the cards (and so are holidays for the time being) I’m taking a ‘mini-break’ the weekend of my birthday. A day each in Venice, Florence and Rome, without ever leaving my own house. There will be a movie set in each city; I shall learn to cook the cuisine of each area; I shall re-visit photo albums, read my travel books, and watch a documentary or two. I’ll share memories with friends I have travelled with before now, find out about what I missed the first time, and plan a trip in the future when all of this is over.
The comfort of memories. It seems, from much that I’ve read, that the pandemic has caused many of us to recall our earlier memories. This is not mere nostalgia or sentimentality; somehow the tragic and fatal consequences for so many in this international crisis have caused us to recall and reassess our lives. That being so, rather than looking for new books to read or music to listen to, this could be the moment to get re-acquainted with old favourites. Psychologically, re-reading or re-watching is less stressful, as you already know where the book or movie is headed, so anticipation and stress are removed; instead you see details of meaning and nuance that you missed the first time, when your attention was all taken up with the plot and the outcome. I have recently re-watched The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, re-acquainted myself with Carole King’s Tapestry — 50 years old this year! — and re-read Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome. What book, movie or music might you revisit this Lent? Answers in the comments!