Spreading kindness is better than self-denial

Doing something for others is always the right move

When the John Murray Show on RTÉ Radio One called me on Monday and asked if I’d come on the programme and talk about Lent it provided me with one of those moments that makes an occasionally stressful career in journalism worthwhile. When required to sound like an expert on any given topic for three minutes on live radio, one discovers the most interesting things. If no one asked me these questions I’d never have to find out the answers.

Lots of religions incorporate fasting and abstinence into their practice but for different reasons. As far I can ascertain, and apologies to authentic experts reading this humble column, the core issue for Catholics is penance. It’s got to hurt. This demonstrates that one is truly sorry for one’s sins. Not that there’s much talk of sin these days. Most people seem to feel like King Lear; that they are more sinned against than sinning.

A bit of pain

Anyway, there’s no point giving up something if the end goal is physical self-improvement. One should save the diets for another time. You should give up chocolate, not because chocolate is bad for you (and in my case, wreaks havoc with my skin), but because chocolate is a pleasure, and penance is all about a bit of pain and suffering. Not too much of course. The older traditions of mandatory fasting were utterly miserable, especially in a country that didn’t exactly enjoy many pleasures or luxuries. But the voluntary nature of today’s sacrifices does leave people searching for an appropriate gesture. I think there should be more focus on the act of charity, like visiting an elderly neighbour. Spreading kindness and joy is much more productive than self-denial.

What do other religions do? The closest the monotheistic religions come to Lent is Islam’s Ramadan, in which they abstain entirely from food or drink from sunrise to sunset for forty days. But they don’t stop there and also abstain from sexual relations and negative acts like swearing. The purpose here is self-discipline. But like the Catholic Lenten fast, a key element is that temporary hunger encourages one to identify with the poor. The Islamic tradition of Zakat – giving alms to the poor – is intensified during Ramadan and you can see how the Trócaire Lenten campaign is ideologically consistent with this concept.

Jews have two great days of fasting. There’s Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – so that concept of penance is there too. And then there’s Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and has evolved into a general commemoration of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, such as the Holocaust. So that sense of seriousness and identification with others who had suffering forced upon them is part of the fast too.

Collective fasting

Interestingly, the original Protestants, from Martin Luther to John Calvin, had no truck with collective fasting. Luther thought it an external observance that did nothing to save one’s soul. Calvin argued that in general one should live a life of frugality, though perhaps at times when a community was in grief, there could be a benefit in collective fasting. But most of the Protestant churches believed that individual, voluntary fasting was the way to go. I can understand this: if you’re being forced to fast I can’t imagine it doing much for your spiritual life.

Mormon’s embraced the practice though, and their idea is very closely tied to world hunger. On the first Sunday of the month they abstain entirely from food and drink for 24 hours and donate the cost of food to the poor. One of their leaders, Gordon B. Hinckley asked: “What would happen if the principles of fast day and the fast offering were observed throughout the world? The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered…A new measure of concern and unselfishness would grow in the hearts of people everywhere.”


But Buddhists and Sikh’s are dismissive of the concept. The Buddha himself recommended avoiding any extreme, be it self-indulgence or mortification. He suggested a daily life of moderation in all things. Some of the Sikh gurus were highly critical of fasting, using words like hypocrisy and questioning the wisdom of torturing the body. But one said that should you fast, “Let your mind be content, and be kind to all beings. In this way, your fast will be successful.”

Of all the reading I had done on fasting, this exhortation affected me most strongly. I thought if you use that moment of temptation (gosh, I’d love a bit of chocolate now) as a reminder to be kinder and better, then the act of self-denial would achieve something positive in the world around us. We can argue the toss on spiritual intentions and benefits of denying oneself, but doing something for others is always the right move.