Or is that a distraction from the real task of preparing for Holy Week and Easter?

In the paper this week we asked well-known Catholics what they plan to do for Lent. Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the Olympic opening ceremony, is giving up tea and coffee; Bishop Alan Hopes will give up bread; and Stuart Reid will stop reading blogs that make him angry. Ann Widdecombe is abstaining from every kind of drink except water. Sister Wendy Beckett, however, won’t be giving up anything. “During Lent I do nothing extra,” she says. “After all, it is surely a time less for ‘giving up’ and more for ‘looking up’: up to Jesus on the Cross.”

Does she have a point – does giving things up merely distract from what is important? Can it turn into a health drive, or a way of losing weight, rather than helping us prepare for Holy Week and Easter? Would it be better, perhaps, to go to Mass more, or spend time reading great spiritual works?

On the other hand, many saints and Church Fathers attest to the spiritual effectiveness of penance. It keeps our focus on God; it is reparation for our sins and the sins of the world.

So, should Lent be about giving things up? Or is that a distraction?