We were sitting down for dinner on the first night of a retreat before Ash Wednesday. One person said she was giving up Facebook for Lent. Another said he was going to try to stop cursing under his breath.
Someone else asked: “Where did that idea come from? You know, the idea that, besides fast and abstinence, we have to give up something for Lent?”
I was tempted to say, “It came from Sister Mary Patrick, the Irish nun who taught me religion when I was in Standard 2.” But I sensed it was not the moment for levity. Actually, I didn’t know the answer. So I decided to look it up.
There are several opinions, but most agree that it started with St Benedict about 1500 years ago. By that time, the Lenten fast was firmly established. All Christians had to fast for forty days. Everybody. Well, almost everybody, since children, the elderly and pregnant women were exempt.
The monks in St Benedict’s monastery felt obliged to do something more. St Benedict laid down the following advice in the Benedictine Rule. He wrote: