If you think about what’s going on in the natural world, these food deprivations make sense. This part of early spring is the most hazardous time of the year for people living close to the earth. The first bitter greens (so prominent a part of spring equinox feasts like Passover and Easter) are just emerging. Fresh eggs, also associated with these feasts, are not yet available; birds are just beginning to nest. The foodstuffs, particularly the salted and smoked meat, that were stored to carry the family through the winter may be giving out. The potatoes and apples left in the cellar are getting soft and of dubious quality. The deprivation of Lent may not be voluntary but a necessity imposed by nature. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “Fasting is in rhythm with the seasons, scarcity followed by abundance.” By choosing lack, people believed they could induce God to send plenty: rain, harvest and life. As Gregory the Great said, “To fast is to offer God a tithe of the year.”
There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new. Yet any change is fraught with danger and difficulty. As a friend of mine said while we were on our way to a ritual, “There is no transformation without change.” Gertud Mueller Nelson in her wonderful book on Catholic ritual comments, “which of us...does not know we must change and fear it, and in that fear come face to face with the mystery of death.” She believes that “conscious engagement of suffering and death forces us to take stock of our gift of life and consider ways of reforming and living our lives more fully and passionately.”
Waverly's website School of the Seasons is a treasure trove of seasonal lore and ideas for celebrating holidays.
Today is Ash Wednesday (this year I'm aligning my "pagan Lent" with the Catholic church simply because I couldn't muster up the self discipline to start back in February) and so I've committed myself to 40 days of logging all of my food intake into my Fitness Pal app. I've gotten out of the habit since November; first we moved, then it was the holidays, and then I couldn't seem to stop with the holiday eating! I haven't dared step on the scale yet but I'm sure I've gained a few pounds back...and losing 35 pounds was too hard to allow backsliding! I plan to use this 6 weeks to get back to where I was pre-Christmas, and then I need to lose 35 more. I know I can do it. Losing weight last year just took daily calorie deficits (modest ones) that I did about 80% of the time. Since the other 20% of the time I allow myself treats or to have something for a special occasion, I don't feel all that deprived. It's a slow process, but do-able. I just need the kick in the pants to begin again, which is where my Lenten challenge comes in this year.
Do you observe a traditional Lent or similar periods of self discipline? I'd be really interested to hear about it if you do!