It is that time of year again; Lent is just round the corner, taking us by surprise, still recovering as many of us are from the Christmas season.
Once more, before Ash Wednesday, I need to think of what to give up for Lent, and what to take up for the penitential season.
On the giving up front, as last year, I aim to cut down on meat consumption. I think this is a useful discipline, for the simple reason that we eat far too much meat in England, and meat is a wasteful form of nourishment compared to pulses, vegetables and fruit. Moreover, not eating meat is a traditional Christian expression of penance. The bishops have recently reintroduced the Friday days of abstinence and it seems a useful idea to go meatless for longer periods too.
There is a further advantage: if one keeps away from the meat counter in one’s local supermarket, one can perhaps explore other aisles and perhaps extend one’s repertoire in the kitchen. I find that I constantly cook the same things: going without meat might help me to be more adventurous.
But then there is a question of what to take up for Lent. If someone were to ask me, the single best thing a lay Catholic could do is to go to daily Mass. This is a wonderful habit and one that deserves every encouragement. Most Catholics do not live so very far from a church where Mass is celebrated daily. This is an opportunity to seize.
But for those who go to Mass every day as it is, or for priests, I suppose the main thing to take up would be a greater commitment to mental prayer. This year I am going to do something I have not done for some time, namely take the Passion narrative of St Mark and go through it line by line; and if I run out some time during Lent, then I shall take up the Passion narrative of St John. Thus the whole of Lent can become a preparation for the two readings of the Passion, that of St Mark on Palm Sunday and that of St John on Good Friday.
When I lived in Rome, I used to make a point of visiting the Scala Santa in Lent. It used to get quite crowded on Fridays, but on other days it was very peaceful. If one went early in the morning the only noise was that of the thunderous traffic in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano outside. Even so, there was always an air of a spiritual oasis about the stairs; and always, whatever the time of day, someone ascending devoutly on their knees.
The Scala is not as revered as it once was, one feels, but I like it a great deal. It is a pity that we do not have anything similar here; the Scala brings to mind the knowledge that Christ suffered and died at a certain place and a certain time, to which place and time we too can be connected. But I suppose that connection can be felt every time we open the Scriptures and every time we go to Mass, where the connection, thanks to the one eternal sacrifice offered on the altar, is made real.