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Lenten etiquette can be its own penance

I watched in disbelief as people have given up Kit Kats but not Mars bars (Getty)

Lent is here again and for the first time in 25 years I have changed my penance, considering that a quarter of a century of drinking nothing but water for six and a half weeks a year is enough. I had also got to the stage of going on autopilot, so decided to liven up the season with something new. I have therefore allowed myself to drink peppermint tea and diluted fruit juice this year, and to compensate for the slackening I have added in a food penance of no chocolates and no desserts.

Oh, dear. The water-only penance was at least straightforward, or at least I thought so, but it was strange how other people just did not understand the concept. As I hate tap water, I would ask for mineral water at functions.

“Lemonade?” would always be the next question. People got that I did not want alcohol but seemed to have difficulty understanding that water really did mean water and not fruit juice or fizzy drinks. If I refused coffee and asked for water, the next question would be, “Camomile tea?”

It was nevertheless clear to me what I had vowed to do; but this year I am already in a quandary. Does “chocolates” encompass chocolate biscuits? Raspberries after lunch or dinner are obviously “desserts”, but what about atop muesli for breakfast? Are yoghurts desserts if eaten at elevenses rather than after a meal?

I have watched in disbelief over the years as other people have given up whisky but not wine, crisps but not nuts or Twiglets, Kit Kats but not Mars bars, or red meat while tucking into roast pork. A popular Lenten penance is to give up meat altogether but I have always been deterred by the prospect of inadvertently noshing a cocktail sausage roll or being confronted with a harmless spinach tagliatelle covered in carbonara sauce. “The Devil hideth in small things” is a strange omission from the Book of Proverbs but he certainly does lurk in the detail.

At least you can never offend a hostess just by asking for water, but refusing a dessert she spent hours preparing is quite another matter. I began Lent by wondering if I was making things easier for myself and soon realised I had made them harder, not through temptation but through definition.

By and large people understand the concept of giving up something for Lent, but not its spirituality. I am always being asked how much weight I expect to lose or what will I do with the money saved. The idea of abstinence qua penance is now comprehensible to few but the practising and it defies reduction to a sentence of explanation.

Our ancestors were comfortable with the idea of penance. Henry II walked barefoot to Canterbury to be beaten by monks for his role in the death of Thomas Becket. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood in the snow at Canossa for three days in penance to persuade the then Pope to lift an excommunication.

Of course we don’t go quite that far these days, but still people look embarrassed if you try to explain the notion of self-denial in the lead-up to Calvary. They feign comprehension and change the subject.

There are times when I appreciate the irony of modern Lent. Christ went off into the desert to hunger and thirst while we stay resolutely in the roar of modern consumerism and cosseted by 21st-century Western comfort. The day after Ash Wednesday I was trawling local dealerships for a new car. Give up the nightcap but buy anything from a Škoda to a Volvo: somehow that does not seem much of an exchange.

The contradiction stems from confusing penance and penitence, and Lent these days focuses on the former rather than the latter. When I wrote Sackcloth and Ashes, the Bloomsbury Lent Book, in 2014, I subtitled it “Penance and penitence in a self-centred world” precisely because I thought the two concepts needed separating. Penance is merely an outward manifestation of inner penitence, and it is the latter on which we should be concentrating during Lent. Yet it is so often marginalised beside the idea of some ritual act of self-denial.

There is nothing much new about this. When I was at convent school the question we were asked was always “What are you giving up?” not “How sorry are you?” I and my fellow pupils regularly counted down the cakeless and biscuitless days, the end of Lent being what we were marking rather than the triumph of Easter.

I sometimes think that not much has changed between the ages of seven and 70. I can always say with exactitude how many days are left in Lent.

Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister