[Updated Mar 10, 2011; please see below]
I'm not Catholic, and I'm not particularly orthodox or devout or ritualistic in terms of my personal faith, but for a few years now, I have really enjoyed the experience of giving something up for Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter.
The inspiration behind Lenten forebearance is based on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, culminating in his being tempted by the Devil. Near the end of the tale, Jesus is taken to a high place and shown 'all the kingdoms in the world', and told that all this can be his if Jesus if willing to worship Old Nick, His Infernal Majesty. I've often wondered if Satan (from a Hebrew word meaning 'adversary') in this story is a wholly separate entity or if the whole affair is more like an internal dialogue, or perhaps discourse with diminutive shoulder incarnation. Regardless, I appreciate how the story resonates with those of us who have wrestled with temptation, figuratively or otherwise, and even the spiritually unaffiliated can agree that it can be easier to achieve goals if you are unhindered by morality.
For myself, the biggest reason for giving something up for Lent is to prove to myself that I can; it is not a feeling of obligation or penance, but an opportunity to go without something I enjoy for a not insignificant period of time. Things I have given up for Lent have included chocolate, popcorn, desserts, and cussin'. The best has always been chocolate, partially because there is always plenty of it around at the end of Lent, which happens to be Easter. I remember buying a gourmet dark chocolate bar with espresso while travelling, and realizing afterwards that I couldn't eat it for another twenty-odd days. It was a long wait, but I still remember how good it was come Easter morning!
I've never given up coffee, and find that to be a daunting prospect; I don't drink a lot of coffee, but when I do, it may sometimes be more an issue of needing than wanting. This year, I've chosen to give up drinking for Lent. Spirits, wine, beer, the works. Cooking with these is still permitted, but alcoholic beverages are off the menu until Easter. Audrey is jumping on this banned-wagon as well, despite the fact that she drinks less, and less often, than I do by far. Not to be outdone, the girls are giving up television for Lent: no broadcast television or TV DVDs until Easter. They came up with this entirely on their own , which made me very proud.
A timely visitation by Island Mike provided us with an excellent opportunity to remove agents of temptation from the downstairs fridge, including a half-dozen Sap Vampire he was kind enough to bring. We had Alley Kat's Coffee Porter and their Glenn Sherbrooke, as well as a Maple Porter from Fernie Brewing, and let me tell you, it sure beats the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.
One of the things that has always discouraged me from doing this previously is the fact that St. Patrick's Day, which I am quite keen to observe, always falls smack in the midst of Lent. But since it falls on a Thursday this year, and last year's commemoration consisted of Guinness stew and The Quiet Man, it felt like opportune timing for a booze-free Lent, probably followed by a wine-centric Easter feast. Like so many things, I am sure self-denial is also best in moderation.
UPDATE: It turns out that the Globe & Mail did an article on other people, including secularists, giving things up for Lent as well; of special interest to me is the brewer who will follow the 300 year old example of Trappist monks and live solely on Doppelbock for Lent. He will be writing about it on his blog, Diary of a Part-Time Monk.