Lent: looking beyond 40 days

By Jill Segger
February 26, 2020

On the doorstep of Lent, I stand uncertain. That this age old period of practising some form of self-denial may be at best transformative and at the least, a little chastening, makes sense. But unless it can also become a signpost towards the destination of true simplicity and the immense, lifelong challenge of taking small steps towards love, I must own myself agnostic.

The spiritual gymnastics of forgoing sugar, chocolate, or some other accessory to wholesome first-world nutrition do not seem particularly significant in a world where lies, cruelty and self-promotion crush countless lives. Of course, this may sound like a counsel of despair, but the alternative view is that through discernment we may come to understand better the connection between our individual tendencies and their cumulative, communal effects.

There is plenty of good advice to be taken on ‘fasting’ from unkind thoughts or words, anger, bitterness and selfishness. Doing so, even if for a short period, may be the early training for a different way of life, even though we are sure to slip and stumble at times. Two steps forward and one back still represents ground gained.

But a different way of life needs a concept which can be both frame and goal. And this is where the Quaker Testimony to simplicity is, for me, such a powerful resource. The Testimonies – peace, equality, simplicity and truth – have to be re-understood and re-enacted in every generation and culture. Their singularity and their power lie in their origins as refusal to acquiesce in something perceived to be wrong, while not yet necessarily knowing what, or where the destination will be which arises from the moral impulse.

Our Advices and Queries reminds us that “A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength”. For the millions who have no such freedom of choice, those who are more fortunate would do well to consider the challenge and value of what is offered there. Unexamined acquisition and travel is going to destroy everything we have hitherto accepted as valuable. We are trying to live as though this were not true and our concept of ‘growth’ is in conflict with the realities of the climate crisis and the massively unjust distribution of wealth and power. The signs are plain and the time for denial is over.

Our society has become practised in protecting itself by punishing those who have the least. Any moves we can make towards simplicity of life will begin to pick away at these destructive defences. Almost three centuries ago, attempting to better appreciate the faith and way of life of the First Nation Americans, John Woolman wrote that “love was the first motion.” In venturing on what we fear to be daunting in its magnitude and unfamiliarity, let’s keep it in mind.

Loving simplicity is for life. Not just for Lent.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.