As it’s Ash Wednesday today, and the first day of Lent, I wanted to talk about this particular tradition and the meaning we can derive from it in our modern age, as Westerners.
There has been a lot of discussion online recently about how in the West we have become decadent and weakened, and I would agree with that sentiment. Our obesity rates are a testament to that. Historically, in the West we have, in one form or another, either been subjected to, or subjected ourselves to, great pressures which have in turn created power and advancement.
To subject yourself to such great pressure or sacrifice is an old Western tradition (and I’m sure it is in other cultures too, I just don’t know enough about them to comment). The northern traditions provide not one but two fantastic examples of sacrifice. Not only did Odin, piercing himself with a spear and hanging from Yggdrasil for nine nights to gain the wisdom of the runes, he also gave his right eye to Mimir, who guards a well whose water imparts the wisdom of the ages. Such stories also abound in Celtic and Greek mythology, whereby a young hero forgoes some immediate pleasure to gain greater riches in the future. This ‘tyranny of the future’, as some philosophers have called it, can also be found in Christianity. It was common in the early Church and until medieval times for Christian mystics and Saints to fast, which they believed induced ecstatic states that allowed them to grow closer to God.
Creating pressure for ourselves is quite an alien concept today, where everything can be literally gained at the touch of a button, so I would like to plead a case for a quiet tradition, which is built on a very old European tradition that can help us create pressure in our lives today – Lent.
Lent is the period in the Christian calendar preceding Easter. Christian Lent is a time of penitence, suffering and deprivation to identify with Christ as he spent his time in the desert. Today, Lent is often portrayed by modern Christian churches as a time of deprivation and suffering. I believe that the message of how Jesus went into the desert to gain power and knowledge seems to have slipped quietly under the radar (this power was demonstrated when he was tempted by the Devil, and overcame the temptation).
Over the past century or so, Lent has become a rather tepid affair, with a token vice or pleasure being given up such as smoking, swearing or drinking alcohol being common favourites. I would argue tha, although such actions will no doubt be good for your health, they miss the point of Lent, which was sacrifice and deprivation in order to receive power and insight.
Traditionally, Lentern fasting used to consist of abstinence from meat, butter, eggs and sugar as well as eating only one full meal (plus two smaller meals known as corollaries, which were basically small snacks) taken after midday.
Mothering Sunday (about halfway through Lent) was a celebratory time and fasting was dropped on that day and then resumed again on the Monday.
The Lentern tradition is built upon a much earlier one which was a common practice (give or take some regional differences) across Europe. Sacrifice is part and parcel of who we are in the West. February, for instance, named by the Romans, was known as the month of purification. The Lentern custom of fasting is built upon an older tradition of fasting and purging the body to receive new life in the spring/Easter/Ostara.
Astrologically, Lent (which means ‘spring period’) occurs roughly under the time of Pisces, which represents the all-that-is, agape and mysticism. Fasting, not only from food but deliberately turning our attention to matters of spirit and being introspective, allows us to harness the energy of the spring and go forth with new creative vigour. If you think the tides of the seasons have no effect on you, you’re much mistaken. You too, no matter what your beliefs, are a part of nature, of Creation, and you respond to these impulses as do the birds making their nests and animals rousing from hibernation.
This ancient pagan – for want of a better phrase – culture across Europe is the soil in which Christianity grew.
Now, let me be clear, I am not anti-Christian by any stretch of the imagination. I do not think that Christianity should be thrown out, there are many parts of it that I revere and think are beautiful. Moreover, it’s part of our history and culture – to understand ourselves, we MUST take Christianity on board and understand it.
So, this time of Lent, the early spring period, is an in-between time. Yule is over, winter has usually done its worst, yet the spring is not quite yet begun. Now is the time to prepare for it, to prepare for the new energy that is waiting to be unleashed. In the West, we’ve always been good at preparing and being organised – it’s how our civilizations grew. So let us reclaim this tradition now and use it to propel us forward into the spring. I think it’s time to revive this custom of fasting and introspection. It’s our original form of detox, which for a short period is good for the body, to clear out any accumulated toxins. We have all the traditions and wisdoms there in our history of how to live in balance but we have forgotten them and they are waiting to be remembered and reclaimed.