Today, the hungry and romantic Roman Catholic will face an unfortunate clash. The calendar has misbehaved for the first time in seventy years to bring the opening day of Lent together with the day of boxed chocolate. Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday and, no, the faithful are not permitted to enjoy some sort of Va-Lent-ine mashup. Eat sparely. Pray often. Love another day.
Of course, if you’re not getting about with an ash crucifix on your forehead—this always made me feel very heavy metal as a girl—you need not abstain.
But, need you reflect on the matter of fasting? In what is surely a violation of holy SBS Food law, I am going to answer: yes.
Oh, goodness. Don’t worry. There will be no pseudo-scientific claims made here for the benefits of drinking nought but diet cordial for a month, or whatever it is those “master cleanse” disciples recommend. It is the dreary work of moralisers to publicly recommend a “healthy” eating plan and it is my firm belief that your diet is a matter to be discussed in private places.
It is, however, my soft suspicion that fasting isn’t all bad.
No, the faithful are not permitted to enjoy some sort of Va-Lent-ine mashup.
Now, when I say “fasting”, I do not mean prolonged and painful abstinence from food. I mean to convey something of my remembered experience of Lent. For me as a kid, this time meant forgoing sweets for forty days, save for Sundays, a day for divine joy and sugar.
This milder kind of fasting is common to modern major religions. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists may all avoid some or all sorts of food some or all of the time. A dietary restriction might seem like a pain, but for many folks, it works like cultural glue. When we stick to the menus of the past—fish on Fridays, matzo at Passover, dates at dawn for Ramadan—we remember that now, and in the future, we are always servants of time. For me, Lent serves to remind me that history is a thing that rules us all, even, and especially, when we pretend it doesn’t.
It also served to remind me this year that I stuffed so many caramels in my pie-hole, my dentist threatened to banish me from her practice. (Do not follow this link. Do not. You will soon discover that the only things truly separating you from delicious caramels are (a) a sweets thermometer and (b) about fifteen minutes.)
My chewy caramels, I was told by the lady with the drill, are a guarantee of tooth decay. This is very likely true. What is also true is that my caramels, and all my sweeties, whether store-bought or homemade, are a distraction, as much as they can be a delight.
Perhaps as a strengthening ritual in the week before one’s in-laws come to stay. The denial of one joy can produce a deluge of another.
To abstain from the food I crave the most is to force reflection on those questions I tend to avoid. You could call these questions religious, or moral or philosophical. Questions like, “What am I doing here?”, “What is here?” and “What am I?” can really be called human questions, because we all ask ‘em from time to time. When we abstain from asking these questions, we fail to nourish our curiosity—or our “soul”, as you may prefer.
I’m attempting the trade of pleasure for wisdom. It need not be Lent that we make room for a bit of the old existential dread. We could do it at Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Maha Shivratri or, perhaps, as a strengthening ritual in the week before one’s in-laws come to stay. The denial of one joy can produce a deluge of another.
All of which sounds very good to me now on this, the first day of fasting. Come back and ask me next week if I’d prefer inner-knowledge or a caramel.
Lead image from Flickr (Ordiglo).
Helen Razer is your frugal food enthusiast, guiding you to the good eats, minus the pretension and price tag in her weekly Friday (but Wednesday only for this week) column, Cheap Tart. Don't miss her next instalment, follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer.