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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  • Barbara

    What a great idea, Robin! May I impose on you for some suggestions? I’m very familiar with those poets except, somewhat, Donne. Thank you!

  • philosophotarian

    I really enjoyed your post. I am thinking of keeping Lent this year. I’ve never done so (Pentecostal-charismatic background; currently attending an Episcopalian church after more than a decade away), and have been at a bit of a loss for what to do. This offers much food for thought. Thanks.

  • sue

    Great poem, Robin. I don’t think I’ve read it before. It reminded me of a passage in the Jewish prophets, and I found a passage from Isaiah which Herrick might have had in mind.

    Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
    Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
    You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
    Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
    Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
    Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

    “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
    to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
    to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
    Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
    when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
    Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
    then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
    Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

    (Isaiah 53:3b-9a)

  • http://lhealey7604.blogspot.com Leslie Healey

    I just finished this unit with my juniors. Herbert is personal, intimate, honest about his relationship with God. The kids responded so strongly to him, that we did a few more than I had planned. He doesn’t preach, someone commented. And though I love John Donne, I found myself thinking about our Lent at school this year with more anticipation than trepidation.


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