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Fasting and renunciations in the United Kingdom: the “lay Lenten period” made its entry on the stage of a secularized society

No ice-cream or potato chips for weeks, small gestures of moderation, some good deeds. A growing number of British citizens – believers and non-believers alike - have introduced some changes in their lifestyle during the period leading up to Easter. The suggestions of tabloid newspapers, fun facts, the reflections of authentic believers…

For the Knight family that ice-cream never tasted as good. After forty days of absence, forty-seven days to be precise, it was the most exquisite dessert ever eaten on Easter day. “We are not religious”, said Andrew Knight, who will soon turn eighteen, son of Ruth and Robert, “but in the past three years we observed Lent together with millions of  British citizens. We started on Ash Wednesday and we managed to resist until Easter. This year we are motivated by our wish to help my father; he has a sweet tooth and we feared that it would affect his health. He loves ice-cream and we didn’t want to leave him alone to face this difficult challenge.” For the Lenten period of 2015 and 2016 the Knight family became vegetarian. “That was my personal choice”, Andrew went on. “I wondered whether I would have managed to resist for so much time. My parents followed and supported me.”

The suggestions of the “Daily Telegraph”. In the secularised society of the United Kingdom the practice of renouncing chocolate, cigarettes or alcohol in the period leading up to Easter, is a consolidated and widespread practice followed by people of different religions and ethnicities, including non-believers. Not all of those who follow this practice are aware that it dates back to Christianity or understand it as a way to draw closer to God. Moreover, their renunciation is motivated by health reasons, to strengthen individual will power or to put oneself to the test. Almost as a way to increase self-esteem.

The most popular newspapers, like the “Daily Telegraph”, published a list of things or practices that can be given up.

A number of dedicated websites proposed a set of renunciations, some of which, for the occasion, included a list of positive gestures. “Lentenpositiveacts.com”, for example, published a list of acts of kindness towards others, to be increased every week leading up to Easter. A smile, an offering of help, a compliment. A good deed a day, starting on Ash Wednesday. The gestures add up to three the following Monday further three the week later and so on, reaching as many as seven gestures of kindness a day the week before Easter.

While according to the “Guardian”… The progressive newspaper the “Guardian” dedicated a set of articles to “Lent”,

calling premier Theresa May a hypocrite because she gave up her favourite crisps – the vinegar-flavoured ones – but found the strength to close national borders to migrant children,  

pointing to the fact that secularization has transformed a period of abnegation into one of self-exaltation, marked by self-centeredness, by the importance of being fit or determined, while preparation for Easter entails the recognition of our sins and our need of God.

From faith to gestures of goodwill. Eleanor Lingham, a practising Catholic woman from Ireland, said she always gave something up during the weeks preceding Easter day, such as “caffeine, that is so hard to renounce.” This year she also gave up “Facebook, Internet researches, evening sweets, as well as gossip”, for “religious reasons and to become a better person.” Moreover, she is in line with the Christian tradition, and with a lay movement that considers Lent an opportunity to lose weight, for better time management, to learn not to waste important resources, etc.

“A certain degree of self-discipline is important.” “These forty-seven days provided an opportunity to try something new. It is a special period to rediscover the importance of many key aspects of our lives,” continued Andrew Knight, “just like health, the fact of doing something together as a family and belonging to a tradition that extends beyond national borders. Discipline is equally important, a day marking the beginning and the end of something. It’s not easy to renounce those things we care about.”

A positive practice. All considered, the fact that thousands of people follow one of the most demanding precepts of Christianity ignoring its religious roots is not a negative thing. In fact, for the Church “it is a wonderful opportunity for evangelization.”

“Seeing people unaware of the fact that they are following” the exterior practices of Lent “is a sign of hope for practising Christians”,

said Natalie Orefice, spokesperson of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. “It shows that the traditions that date back to the Gospel have penetrated our society and that they passed the test of time.” Fasting or giving something up “for over forty days has a meaning in the lives of atheists or agnostics, even though they are still unaware of Christ. Many of them live an experience of renewal in the days of renunciation prior to Easter day, just like the New Year’s propositions for the months to come.”

 

 

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