How to Keep a True Lent

The Judean Desert, where Jesus fasted

The Judean Desert, where Jesus fasted (the basis of Lent)

Spiritual Sunday

If Lent, which begins Wednesday, sometimes gets a bad name, it’s because people use it the way they use New Year’s resolutions: to stop smoking, give up fatty foods, or engage in other austere disciplines. Then they become resentful and Lent gets the blame.

In “To Keep a True Lent,” 17th century poet Robert Herrick reminds us that Lent is about spiritual cleansing, which is not necessarily physical abstinence. I was startled to come across this poem because previously I had always associated Herrick with such carpé diem poems as “To the Virgins to Make the Most of Time,” “Corinna’s Gone a Maying,” and “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast.”

For Herrick, Lent is not about giving up meat or going around in rags with “a downcast look and sour.” It’s about fasting from “strife,” “old debate,” and “hate.”

Herrick probably had these in mind because of England’s Puritan revolution, which cost him his king and also his job as an Anglican vicar. This personal history may also explain why he targets mortification of the flesh. We should be feeding the soul, not starving the body. Starving sin, he tells us, does not require us to starve the bin. It’s not keeping the larder lean. (Furthermore, those who piously refrain from meat then hypocritically pile their plates high with fish.) Lent is a season for getting close to God and we should choose the Lenten discipline that best helps us do so.

My Lenten resolution is, every day, to read and reflect upon a poem by one of Britain’s 17th century religious poets. Along with John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan, I will include religious poems by Herrick. For me, this is a joyous exercise.

To Keep a True Lent

By Robert Herrick

Is this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent. 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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