I’m not religious, but abstaining from wine every year has shown me the value of Lent

​Abstaining from wine for Lent proved to be a worthwhile challenge over the years, writes Ben Lowry

Abstaining from wine for Lent proved to be a worthwhile challenge (Image: Adobe)
Abstaining from wine for Lent proved to be a worthwhile challenge (Image: Adobe)
Abstaining from wine for Lent proved to be a worthwhile challenge (Image: Adobe)

​It was Pancake Day yesterday, and in our Belfast office they were served with glorious toppings. Making pancakes at this time is a Christian tradition because they are a way to use up rich ingredients like eggs, milk, and sugar before the Lenten fast. Since my childhood in in America I have had a taste for pancakes with maple syrup, something that now – given my hefty register on the scales – does seem decadent.

But from today, Ash Wednesday, I embark on an even greater (for me) six-week sacrifice than avoiding such foods – that of alcohol. It is the eighth year that I have observed Lent.

I did not have a religious upbringing and as an adult had little interest in Christian rituals, which I considered to be futile and in some cases showy. But as I got older I began to find barely moderated consumption to be unsatisfying. I was fortunate to be able to eat and drink what I wanted, when I wanted it and I was not great at portion control.

After a winter sport holiday in early 2016 with a group of men in which unlimited wine at night was part of the chalet deal, I decided to observe Lent by not taking any alcohol at all for the 42 days (in fact the abstinence period is closer to seven weeks than six). It is one of the best things I have done, and now I make the same sacrifice every year.

While I was never a big drinker, prior to 2016 I took at least a couple of glasses of wine with my meal most evenings. This is normal in countries such as France – not drinking for the sake of drinking but rather drinking red wine to enhance the pleasure of eating. And good red wine with good food is a very pleasurable experience indeed.

At weekends, if not working the next day I would drink even more wine. But by 2016 I was in my 40s and I became more aware of the after effects of having consumed even medium amounts of alcohol the night before. This despite the fact that I almost never drank wine during the day.

That first Lent I did find at first find it frustrating not to be able to enjoy a meal with wine. The six weeks seemed a long time.

But after getting through it without much difficulty, I vowed to drink wine only three nights a week thereafter, and stay off for four. That reduced intake made Lent the next year, 2017, all the easier.

And after that I went down to wine two nights a week, off five. I felt better for it.

After subsequent Lents I set even tighter goals, and went down to wine only two nights a fortnight. That, though, was too puritanical, and now I think two nights a week is a better balance and well within recommended alcohol limits.

Why do I write all this? As said I was not a big drinker and so cutting my consumption was never going to be a life-changing affair. But it opened my eyes to something that had in any event become apparent as I got older: that religious traditions are not as silly as I once assumed.

There are common themes in many of the ancient belief systems, two of which I increasingly admire. One is the need at times for sacrifice. The other is the need to be perpetually thankful.

I am deeply grateful for the values that have been impressed upon me over my life. But we all develop our own values and observing Lent has become one of mine.

In all of the last eight Lents I have at times been sorely tempted to break it, say at a wedding or in a bar on St Patrick’s Day or at a meal in which good wine is being served. At risk of sounding sanctimonious or self congratulatory, I am glad that I have not done so since that first Lenten of 2016.

As my reduction in wine consumption over the years has fallen, my palate for it has improved. By showing discipline in my outside-of-Lent intake, as well as total abstinence during Lent, drinking good wines is all the more pleasurable and meaningful.

I suspect this article might irritate some devout Christians, who will think it indulgent and devoid of a proper understanding of the Lenten sacrifice. But more and more I do try to reflect on the values and beliefs that underpin such important traditions.

Ben Lowry is the editor of our sister title, the Belfast News Letter