An alien question to today's younger generation is "What are you giving up for Lent?" No child of my acquaintance gives up anything for Lent; nor have my generation of parents ever exacted or enforced the custom.
Partly because we did not really favour privations: the Stoic tradition had died with the introduction of central healing. And partly because the shopping and consumer culture is inherently hostile to anything like a Lenten practice.
The Christmas decorations go up before Advent; the Easter Eggs are on display before the beginning of Lent, and the hot-cross buns, once only eaten on Good Friday alone, appear in Marks and Spencer in January.
The deep freeze, the supersonic jet, and Genetic Modification of foods have ruined all sense of season anyhow. Strawberries in winter, spring lamb in autumn, "new" potatoes in early spring - all are now available through supermarket cosmopolitanism. And alongside the disappearance of seasons in food goes the seasonal rhythm of Lent.
There are few everyday references in the secular world of the Lenten season. In my childhood, wedding pictures in early February would appear in the newspapers under the headline: "Pre- Lenten weddings."
Marriages during Lent itself were unusual: it was a time of sobriety and reflection, not celebration and partying. Big dances and receptions were off the menu, though there was a rash of what were charmingly called "Dress Dances" in the Mardi Gras season leading up to Lent. Mardi Gras, the festivities before Lent, has now been appropriated as a Gay Fest, and the cities of San Francisco and Sydney compete for the queenly crown of best Gay Mardi Gras. I guess gays have just as much a right as anyone else to enjoy the traditional Shrove Tuesday celebration which has been part of the universal Catholic culture, but I find it incongruous to be told how "absolutely fabulous" Sydney Mardi Gras is by a secular ignoramus who has no notion that it is the revel before the shriving. We Puritans think you have to earn Mardi Gras.
To be sure, I know individuals who forego certain foods and drink at this time of the year for the sake of their health. My friend Guy quits drinking every Lent and Advent, only making certain exceptions for saint' days he celebrates (St David, St Patrick). If there should be a special event, a saint can usually he found to give a dispensation. There has to be several saints at work during the Cheltenham races. Still, he sticks admirably to the tradition and he was rather pleased when his doctor told him recently that the bi-annual fast was keeping him fit. And while it is carried out for his health, it makes him aware of Lent just the same.
I am not against the idea that body and soul can be intertwined, and what is good for your health is often good for your character as well.
Mens sana in corpore sano. The Quakers used to teach people to sit on hard, uncomfortable chairs rather than soft, easy ones, because it was good for your character to avoid the comfort zone. We now know it is probably better for your back to sit up straight. Some fasting traditions arose out of necessity, anyhow: February and March were the thinnest time of the year in traditional agricultural communities, and people were eking out the winter stocks before the spring crops. It is no coincidence that articles about weight watching regularly appear in the newspapcrs in the early months of the year: they are prompted by a long race memory of enforced diet during this season in Europe. But we are so aware of health issues today, so informed about the benefits of quitting alcohol, fats and, of course, cigarettes, that any fasting we undertake in Lent is essentially for the benefit of health and material well- being, and the spiritual dimension has faded from view. This is even true of Church-sponsored Lenten campaigns organised by such organisations as Trocaire and Cafod, where we are asked to contribute funds to overseas development aid as part of our Lenten exercise.
Who could doubt the necessity of helping our poorer brethern in Africa, Thailand or Peru? Who could oppose education program, emergency relief, clean running water, the provision of seeds and fertiliser? And who could argue that most of us could forego the indulgence of a few drinks after work or a nice meal out with friends now and again during Lent, and give the money instead to the poor of the developing world?
What makes me feel uncomfortable about such Lenten campaigns is their complete emptiness of spirituality. The entire emphasis is on perfectly worthy and sensible material aid - food, sanitation, health, housing, education. A supermarket could as easily undertake the same campaign. There isn't a word about prayer, about spirituality, about saving souls.
And fundamentally, that is why the spirit of Lent has died. Because the spiritual element has been so thoroughly removed.
Mary Kenny is an Irish journalist who contributes to many Irish and British publications. Her article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic.'