I have decided that the most exacting form of Lenten penance is something which is a darned nuisance. Going without may involve disappointment and trials of resolve but if it also involves an interruption to routine and a challenge to ingenuity then, because we live in an age of entitlement, it seems harder.
In the West, we take things for granted. We just expect, for example, that light and heat will be available at the flick of a switch, that pure and clean water will follow a turn of a tap, that fridges and freezers will preserve our food.
A power cut which lasts any length of time will soon be on the news, we will ring up the water company if the supply is interrupted and feel it important enough to tell our friends if we arrive home to find a flood under the freezer.
We are irritated when the trains and buses fail to run on time or the car won’t start. The fact that in large tracts of Africa there is no clean water, no electricity supply and no public transport is no consolation.
The baby boomer generation can remember outside loos, no central heating, no freezers and long walks to school, but all that is so far behind us that we have long since forgotten to be grateful for the casual ease of daily living now.
This year, I have added giving up bread to my usual abstinence from coffee and alcohol. With this sort of fast, penance lies not in deprivation but in its sheer nuisance value. Normally my go-to snack lunch when out on a TV shoot or on tour or just shopping is a sandwich, readily obtainable, requiring neither cutlery nor plate. My go-to late supper when too tired to prep and cook is something or other on toast. Bread. Bread. Bread.
At least my speedy breakfast, snatched from the station café while waiting for a train or in a coffee shop having a breather from walking around town, is a croissant, which blessedly is not bread (even if it is often displayed as such).
“Man shall not live by bread alone,” said Our Lord. Well, no, but it does help to keep us going.
Of course there are people for whom bread is unimportant, who would never dream of queuing for it in a shortage, who go from one end of the week to the other without it. And then there are people like me who, while not necessarily relishing it for its taste, nevertheless love it for its convenience.
This Lent, I will have to track down a salad if out and in need of a lunchtime snack, locate a pathetic little fork from its seal and find somewhere to eat my inconvenient meal. The other option is to make up a packed lunch before leaving home, which is an even bigger nuisance. I suppose I could settle for a chocolate bar instead but since when was Lent supposed to wreck nutrition? I suspect I will often end up lunching on bananas.
The reality is that if I had to walk several miles just to obtain water, then I would know what nuisance really was, while those who have to do so take the misery as much for granted as our ancestors did getting their light from candles. They have known nothing else, while in this land of plenty we whinge about the size of the overseas aid budget.
At this time in the Church calendar there is a small demand for my book on penance, Sackcloth and Ashes. Somehow in it I underestimated the nuisance value of giving something up, though obviously recognising it in taking on a special Lenten task. The reason for that was simple enough: my previous penances have concentrated on deprivation alone. Saying no to champagne at a wedding is a bore but it involves no effort other than that of willpower. Nor does saying no to a chocolate.
One popular penance is to give up meat, but I have never been attracted to that option because it becomes such a nuisance for everybody else, who must take it into account if and when feeding you. At least bread only comes as a side dish.
I am not standing at the gates at Canossa, shivering bareheaded in the snow. I am not walking barefoot to Canterbury to be beaten by monks. Our concept of penance has rightly changed with the ages, but sometimes I wonder if the company of heaven looks down and giggles at our modern efforts. Bread? Meat? Alcohol? Chocolates? Or does it look at war zones and famines and wonder at our feebleness, our self-indulgence, our very definition of penance?
Apparently we should rejoice in Lent. Humph. Do I expect to get through the whole of Lent without succumbing? Yes, but not without the odd swear word.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister
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