There’s no doubt that a bit of discipline is a good for us but this year in these days of lockdown there has been a lot of discipline and renunciation. People have suffered because they haven’t been able to visit loved ones, meet friends, enjoy their usual methods of entertainment to say nothing of working from home while home schooling children. I’m lucky because I don’t have to do any of this but the invitations that come in thick and fast for interfaith and other events show that for many people lockdown has been as busy if not busier than usual. The cessation of a lot of our activities has not meant much of a breathing space. So perhaps this is the discipline for this lent – to take a bit of time to allow ourselves to breathe, to relax, to be happy just to sit and savour a cup of coffee. In the busyness of life this can seem to be a luxury and extravagance that doesn’t fit in well to a daily timetable.
There’s a suggestion within Judaism that after death God will ask us ‘ What use did you make of the good things of life?. I think, or hope, the expected answer would be ‘enjoy them’. For many people fasting and enjoyment don’t go together but there’s a way in which they do and maybe there’s a Lenten lesson in that.
Recently I watched the film Babette’s Feast which incidentally Richard Gere says is his favourite film of all time. I had already seen the film a good number of years ago and it had imprinted itself on my imagination. The film is about a small puritanical Danish Lutheran community living in an isolated part of Jutland. The small sect is ruled and guided by a pastor with two beautiful daughters who renounce a future of love and fame to remain by their father’s side. On their father’s death they become the leaders of the sect, taking an unappetising gruel to the poor and sick, offering a simple supper to the community in their home when it meets for worship. It’s a hard life, lived as it is in an unforgiving landscape and poverty but the believers, who have by now greatly decreased in number, are staunch and faithful living a strict asceticism devoid of pleasure and comfort - and sometimes even charity as they bicker amongst themselves and remember past hurts and infidelities. The climax of the film comes when the community sits down to a dinner to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of their founder – a dinner cooked by a famous French cook, Babette, who had had to flee France fourteen years previously and had taken refuge with the sisters. Babette had won the lottery and spent all the prize money on ingredients such as turtle for soup, quails, blinis, china crockery, glasses and the finest of wines. It was a seven course meal from the finest of French chefs.
The community sat down to the meal determined to “eat as if we never had the sense of taste” to avoid falling into the sin of gluttony or indulgence. The film is beautifully shot and while keeping to the promise of not commenting on the food the faces of the old men and women are transformed as they experience and obviously enjoy the exquisite taste of such good food and wine. They are in awe and wonder at the joy of this experience and it’s this transformation which I’ve never forgotten. I can see in my mind’s eye the closed, tight faces that relax into appreciation and wonder, the men and women who at the end of the evening join hands and dance round the fountain. It’s a miracle of sorts.
So what does this have to do with lent. Well, there is a belief that to really appreciate what we have is a way to simplify our lives. To appreciate the clothes we have and take joy in them would lead to buying less, to savour and enjoy the food we eat would lead to eating less, to be attentive to the beauty of the created world would lead us to care for it, to savour and enjoy each minute would lead us to stop our rushing about and to give thanks for what we have. Gratitude, wonder, enjoyment are spiritual values and practices which are appropriate for lent – not exactly penitential but I suspect as transforming as any ascetical way of life.