A faster way to happiness

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I invited my friend Igor, a bearish, passionate Czech, to a large bash I am hosting on 1 March. He rang me up this week to refuse the invitation. 'Knowing what you will be serving,' he said, 'I cannot take the risk. I would simply break down.'

Of course, I understood: 1 March is in Lent, and Igor is one of those principled people who, despite the temptations of the age, and a normal tendency to both gluttony and, being Slav, to drinking to excess whenever possible and especially among friends, strictly observes the Lenten fasts.

It is also characteristic of him that, even as he declined the invitation, he suggested that, 'even sitting on a carpet in your office with a bottle or two at our disposal', we do something of a communal drinking nature before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. (I accepted.)

Mardi Gras exists for precisely that sensible reason - celebrate before you weep - just as fasting originates, psychologically at least, in the idea that purification comes before celebration: suffer to increase your joy.

People like Igor were common in my youth, and the degree of rigour with which the Lenten fast was observed (as well as the many other fasts and abstinences throughout the year) was generally considered a way of gauging the seriousness of a religious attitude. One could have all the outward signs of religion, one could go to church daily, but was one up to denying oneself anything as common, normal and God-given as food?

In the boarding schools of my childhood, I suspect we saw Wednesdays and Fridays (days of abstinence, no meat) and Lent (a 40- day fast, heavily reduced rations, nothing we wanted except on Sundays) as a money-saving ploy by the management, those being the days when fish was vastly cheaper than meat. And many an adult's aversion to fish (it was invariably boiled) and vegetables (just as invariably boiled) was formed in childhood and at school.

My mother, being an Italian Catholic, had found ways to circumvent these laws when we were at home. There always have been indulgent priests and commonsense spiritual guides to say that fasting should be practised according to one's capacity (even in the strictest religious communities the elderly and the sick were exempt from fasts), and my mother definitely frequented them.

Here again, the times have evolved. Today's churches hardly take God seriously, much less fasts, and my mother's many unsuccessful attempts to fatten me up would have been that much easier.

But the idea of fasting has much to commend it. Having entered - improbable as this might seem to some readers - a monastery when I was 14, I learnt that there is a peculiar and valuable beauty about distinguishing among the seasons of the year and the rituals of the church. For everything

that we did there was a vast history which one could examine; very little happened

by chance (always reassuring to an adolescent) and for almost every event of our lives there was an explanation, something from which, if we knew it, we could derive spiritual profit.

Thus, that most primitive of fasts (again reflecting deprivation in expectation of joy), before the taking of communion, did indeed remarkably heighten the experience of communing, that is, of taking the sacrament in common with the whole church and the whole world. As we rose at four and communed at half-past eight, and as I was growing in both body and appetite, the wait was long and anguished.

But so were the rewards. And it was to my great distress that the Novice Master, later the bicycling (and only) Catholic Bishop of Sweden, informed me that I was being over- rigorous, that I showed reprehensible Jansenist tendencies (over-zealousness and excessive asceticism) and that he would modify my Lenten fast, 'because you're young and you need to eat, and the less you eat the more exalted you'll become, and we don't want any of that, do we?'

But now that I am no longer young, and possibly less exalted, I think of what Igor is doing with some fondness. A fast is meant in some ways (as the Koran recognises) as a withdrawal from the pleasures of the world, a way of distancing oneself from one's own routines, one's automatic pilot. Such breaks do, wonderfully, sharpen one's appreciation both of things that are simple and things that are good.

The trouble with diets, I find, is that they are not based on any ultimate transcending goal. It does not seem to me of major importance that one should have a narrow waist, or that one should unjowl oneself. If cellulite (or -ose, I never know which) was not supposed to form in thighs, then I suppose God would so have arranged matters that it did not. To show on one's body that one has enough to eat, or even too much, is a sign of contentment and fulfilment and appropriate to advancing age.

But tell me that fasting sharpens the mind and the senses, or that it is salutary for the soul, and I am attracted. Igor, though an intellectual and a fine historian, is a creature of the wilds for most of the year and notably quietens down in Lent. That is when he does some of his best thinking.

I do not say that I will follow his example - among other reasons, it would be imposing on others - but those of you who think occasionally that you ought to diet might indeed look on Lent as a spiritual opportunity: 40 days without an importunate appetite (and only the first week is painful) will make your Easter feast something you can truly enjoy. Amen.

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