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Debate: Is giving up alcohol, chocolate or biscuits the best way of marking Lent?

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

By on Thursday, 7 February 2013

Warm double chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and raspberries on top (Photo: PA)

Warm double chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and raspberries on top (Photo: PA)

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?

  • teigitur

    One should give up nothing for lent. One should take up stuff for Lent.Daily Mass, extra shifts at the soup kitchen, visiting the elderly etc. The list is endless.

  • CPW

    I think that the way it should be understood is abstinence/fasting, alms giving and prayer. So take up things by all means – prayer (e.g. daily rosary, bible study etc.), good works and so on. But giving things up has a place too. After all, we’re throwing out all of the distractions, the false gods that we worship and making more space to focus on worshiping the one true God. So if food is your false god, try fasting and offer the self-sacrifice as a prayer for some intention. If alcohol is your false god, give it up. If you spend hours on facebook, give it up and spend that time ‘looking up’ in prayer instead. Giving up versus taking up is a false dichotomy.

  • Londonistar

    I plan on doing both – the giving up and the something extra. 

    I have been “absent” from my faith til the whole same sex marriage debacle made me realise how much hatred there is out there towards us and with no good reason. I was shall we say a relaxed Catholic. Too much so. 

    I now plan on giving up bread (as I LOVE it) and attending Mass every Sunday (May sound silly to some but I don’t regularly attend. Small baby makes that difficult). I plan on attending, giving it my full attention and setting aside time for daily prayer. 

    I would also like to volunteer for the Church in some way but find it difficult to discover what’s on and where I could help.

  • Jeannine

    Lent is about extra prayer, almsgiving & performing penitential acts for one’s sins & for others for the sake of salvation.
    For me abstaining from chocolate at times can be pure hell. Every year during Lent I seem to give in to temptations. So yes, once again I will give up chocolate.

  • Benedict Carter

    The post-Vatican II Church doesn’t do penance and sacrifices. We are told that “living a normal life” is penance enough (i.e, no penances or sacrifices to be made as a way of offering to God a sincere sorrow for our sins which put Him on the Cross and as a way of mastering our passions). The modern Church is in total contradiction to all the Fathers, the Saints, the calls of Our Lady and the constant practice of the Church until 1965.

    In the same way, the midnight fast before Communion was ousted, and reduced to 15 minutes (!) I believe at the present time. 

    As a normal life involves for most people guzzling alcohol, chocolate and anything else on top, the old Catholic understanding of making personal sacrifices for the sake of our eternal souls has been thrown onto the midden by the Church along with everything else. 

    May God forgive these post-Vatican II churchmen! I can hardly bring myself to. 

    And let me say, has anyone noticed that almost nothing the Pope says each day has any direct relevance to the worries and problems of the ordinary serious Catholic? He goes on about dialogue, respect for this, that and the other while the Church withers and in many places dies. Heterodox theologians, Bishops, Cardinals, priests – no condemnation, no action, the Vatican fast asleep.

    Just like the period of the Arian heresy, the modern church, riven at the top by Modernism and neo-Modernism, leaves the faithful leaderless, rudderless, having to find their own way amongst the snares of this world. And my God! they are many and nasty, bringing many souls to ruin. 

    So give up your chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes and whatever else it is you like. Throw out the television (for good). GET YOURSELF to Confession regularly and pray that Christ will cleanse His Church sooner rather than later. 

    And find the nearest priest to you offering the Old Mass. That’s the best Lenten resolution of all.

  • JabbaPapa

    In the same way, the midnight fast before Communion was ousted, and reduced to 15 minutes (!) I believe at the present time.

    One hour now, dear Benedict, as opposed to three hours previously.

    The midnight fast is an extra devotional practice that was never a real requirement for every Communion, though there still ARE cases where it is expected — in nocturnal vigils prior to a Dawn Mass, for instance.

  • JabbaPapa

    I have been “absent” from my faith til the whole same sex marriage
    debacle made me realise how much hatred there is out there towards us
    and with no good reason. I was shall we say a relaxed Catholic. Too much

    It is very hard to think of a finer Lenten resolution than this return to the Faith — may God bless you in your holy desire for Him !!!

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, but most people aren’t in strict religious orders, of whom there are very few left. Yet another element that downplays the effects of belief in, and reverence for, the Real Presence. 

  • Mark-H

    Both / and. No TV is the toughest one for me but as I have a weakness in that regard it is most necessary. Here’s an idea, ask someone close to you what they think would be a good sacrifice for you to make. Could be challenging.

  • Lindy Ill

    @CPW: Perfect response!! You’ve got it EXACTLY right!

  • AlanP

    All you are saying is that the Church is not in step with what you personally would like it to be. 

  • AnnieB

    I try to simplify my diet as much as possible and spend more time in prayer. One thing I would dread to give up is my reliance on my smart phone and all things web. Getting back to basics, feeling our smallness when we fast, feeling the power of prayer when fast, is a real blessing- it’s just hard!

  • Benedict Carter

    You would like that to be so. 

  • kinkysox

    Here are a few suggestions to start at Lent and carry it on:

    Abstain from meat not just on Fridays but Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well, as reparation for the offenses, blasphemies and sacrileges committed against Our Lord and His Blessed Mother and for the salvation of souls. It is tough – it is meant to be. The money that you would have spent on meat becomes alms.

    There are many who, due to health issues, can’t do the ‘give up luxury food’ thing because they do so all day every day.

    It doesn’t mean to say that there is nothing left to sacrifice or do extra.

    Take time out to pray the Holy Rosary and the Stations of the Cross in peace and quiet.

    As for not going to Mass because there are crying babies – lucky you! It is sad when parishoners who attend Mass regularly are older and, in my experience, it is only at an Extraordinary Form Mass that I see children – from babies to teenagers – and they don’t make a sound!

    Children should be made comfortable and welcome at Mass by all the parish, but it is up to the parents to instil discipline if their children misbehave or hush them if they make a noise.

  • squarko

    Giving up chocolate and/or alcohol for Lent may not be the best  way of marking Lent but it does remind me at least once a day that I need to try to do better…

  • awkwardcustomer


  • awkwardcustomer


  • Kevin

    What does the Church say? That should be our guide.

  • John

    When we say no, we say yes to something else. Why not say no to something that does not glorify God and say yes to something that does say Yes to God. And hopefully, we can continue that something past Easter, bringing us all the closer to God.

  • AlanP

    I don’t understand this “giving up meat” thing.  Many people don’t eat meat anyway, and many others of us don’t particularly like it.  For some, giving up fish would be a greater sacrifice.

  • kinkysox

    I could also say that some people don’t eat chocolate, sweets, biscuits, cupcakes (or indeed any cakes), drink alcohol or caffeine beverages either – for health reasons and some because they don’t feel any great loss or ‘cold turkey’ if they never see another Cadbury’s Flake ever again i.e. it’s no great sacrifice.

    Back in September 2011, the Bishops of England and Wales re-introduced Friday abstinence from meat (i.e. beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bacon, game) – marking the first anniversary of the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to England and Scotland.

    The meat abstinence is a centuries old Church practise because meat was (and still is) regarded as a luxury.

    There are other things apart from Lenten food fasting.

  • JabbaPapa

    That Lenten fasting is a tradition of the Church, which despite the fact that it is by definition optional (because the method of fasting must be freely chosen by the penitent), is a recommended practice for all Catholics.

    Fasting as such is nevertheless forbidden for those whose medical conditions dictate otherwise, and those with very limited financial resources who do not eat properly at any time of the year should also avoid anything more than a very symbolic manner of fasting.

    Of course, all must show respect for those around them who are fasting, and should be prepared to join them at least symbolically when in their company as a visible sign of Christian Communion with them.

    Various forms of spiritual, or intellectual, or moral ascesis can of course accompany, or possibly substitute, the corporeal fasting that Lent is typically associated with — and it important to realise that such an ascesis could take the form of something extra in one’s daily life (such as attending Mass daily during Lent, for instance, or saying Lenten rosaries or other such daily penitential prayers) rather than something less.

    In the more religious sense, Lent is a spiritual preparation for the Easter remembrance of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord, as well as being the period in which the catechumens will be preparing for their baptisms, as well as the start of the final preparations for those initiands and catechumens who will receive their Confirmation at Pentecost — so that it is a time to join with them in prayer for their fuller conversion into the Catholic Faith as well as our own ; this spiritual conversion is the central purpose of any form of Lenten fasting (so that simply forgoing chocolate biscuits, for example, might be a little short of target).

  • JabbaPapa

    The abstinence from meat during Lent is mediaeval and Mediterranean in origin — and the original purpose of the custom is medical, as a form of health diet.

    The winter diet consisted of conserved and meats, salted, smoked, sausages etc kept over from harvest time.

    Daily consumption of these fatty and salty meats was causative of health problems, and Lent (with the start of Spring) is the time of year when it was possible to switch back to fresh food, from the remains of the previous year’s foodstuffs.

    The inventions of the railway, and industrialised food manufacturing, and the refrigerator have mostly put an end to these medical reasons — and this Mediterranean custom is not really coherent with the very northerly or southerly climates, nor indeed the entire Southern Hemisphere — but the spiritual nature of the Lenten period remains, even though it can no longer be directly associated with those healthy eating customs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and pre-industrialisation Early Modern periods.

  • Guest

    Giving up compulsive aggressive blogging is one form of penance, and one from which many would benefit.

  • AlanP

    I know meat abstinence is a long tradition because it was once regarded as a luxury.  But it is irrelevant for vegetarians, and many other people don’t much like it. When the bishops brought it back, they said it was to “show our Catholic identity”. Is it really being suggested that, if someone is seen eating fish on a Friday, people will think “ah, they must be Catholic”?  I think the bishops’ ruling (which I adhere to) is absurd.
    Personally I shall try to give up cake and chocolate, as they are the most irresistible unnecessary things. 

  • JGill

    A wise parish priest always used to tell us ‘Fasting without prayer is called dieting’. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Speak for yourself, phil136 !!!

    Are you going to be giving up your trolling and your evil impersonations during Lent ?

  • John McCarthy

    “Penance, Penance,Penance.” (Our Lady to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes) 

  • kinkysox

    Yes, indeedy!

  • JabbaPapa

    Hallo phil139 !!!

  • Bob Latin

    We gave up TV for lent 20 years ago and afterwards threw the telly out and what joy it has been since with so much more time for God.  So if you are to give up something for Lent make sure it helps you get closer to God.
    Bless you all for trying especially in this year of faith.

  • Parasum

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

    ## That might be answered by asking another question: “What is Lent for” ?

  • JFJ

    Jesus teaching in the Beatitudes in Matthew 6 is one in which our Lord is warning against public practice of righteousness to be noticed.  After that, throughout the chapter, Jesus says, ‘when you give alms’, ‘when you pray’, ‘when you fast.’  Seem there is an assumption that it is happening.  Jesus never prescribed what the fasting, the praying (other than his model prayer) and giving entailed, but he seemed to assume it was happening and that it was to be done in secret and in a way that we could lay up treasures where moth and rust doesn’t corrupt.  Fasting is a lost art in this day, and perhaps should once again be found. What, it seems to me has to do with that which is significant to the individual and God. 

  • Cjkeeffe

    I tend not to give up anything, but ratehr take something up. Last lent i took up praying a decade of the rosary for the Holy Souls in Purgatory and have kept it up ever since. Lent should be more then just giving things up.

  • Squire Western

    Lent has become progressively less demanding over the centuries. I am not sure that this is desirable. What about a return to the traditional practices; no meat or dairy products, one meal a day only and a collation. That is pretty challenging and will keep the idea of penitence firmly in mind!

  • ACS

    I think there is a danger that it just becomes a battle with willpower and part of a health-kick (I will use the time to de-tox a bit from alcohol and chocolate).

    In my experience, it does help to give some things up but not so much by way of some personal battle as a reminder that many of the people in the world do not have the things that we take for granted.

    Drinking less wine may be a good thing but perhaps even better to put aside the money saved and give it to a charity.

    Making more time for prayer and for spiritual reading is good as well as controlling one’s irritability and difficulty with accepting suffering, in whatever way it may come. So hopefully during Lent one undergoes a spiritual de-tox as well.

    I find it helpful to try to reflect upon and follow the advice of such spiritual advisers as Father De Caussade:

    The moderation of your exterior conduct, which
    will be a wonderful help to you in gradually overcoming  your passions; in other words, to speak
    gently, to act quietly, without any vehemence or impetuosity just as though you
    were of a phlegmatic temperament.

    Interior gentleness towards yourself and others,
    at least of the kind that nothing contrary to this virtue may show in your
    exterior conduct; or that, if for a moment you should forget yourself you will
    not fail to make reparation and to rise without delay.

    An entire abandonment to divine Providence as to
    the success of everything. … saying always, “I wish only what God wills”.
    peace of heart that nothing can disturb, not even your own faults and sins and
    which will make you return to God with a peaceful and quiet humility