I never observed Lent, the 40-day period of self-denial that stretches from sombre Ash Wednesday, when believers mark their third eye with grey dust as a reminder of their eventual death, to the excess of Easter, with its pineapple-studded hams that are hefty as footballs. So what made me, an avowed spiritual agnostic, co-opt this holy ritual observed by millions of religious believers who forgo candy and cable TV in order to get closer to God?
I wanted to see if I could give up drinking.
Jesus spent 40 days wandering in the Judean desert, avoiding people. Surely, I could spend 40 days drying out and avoiding the liquor store. Maybe forgoing the grape would have a sobering effect on my soul — and lead me to a greater state of grace — too. After all, the fasting of Lent is ubiquitous in the world’s religions, from Yom Kippur to Ramadan. Simply put, giving stuff up is good for us.
Even the secular can benefit from self-denial: more than 80 percent of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. So why not a spiritual-but-not-religious Lent? Why is it just the faithful who get this chance to build character by ditching bad habits, to live without so that they can live deeper within and to hit the reset button on those broken New Year’s resolutions?
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve been staggering in this dry desert for several weeks now, aching to quench my parched tongue with a piquant pinot noir. I eagerly anticipated that non-penitent first Sunday when I could raise a glass of wine to my lips without guilt. Then, I overcompensated for my deprivation by downing an entire bottle of wine. The hammering in my head the next morning pounded the message home: all things in moderation, even when you are allowed to cheat.
Do I have a drinking problem? I’m not sure. I don’t throw up, pass out or miss work because of drinking. Wine is simply my way to unwind. It’s both a reward and a relief, as well as a friend and a foe. I identify with what Caroline Knapp wrote in her bestselling memoir, Drinking: A Love Story: “To a drinker the sensation is real and pure and akin to something spiritual: you seek; in the bottle, you find.”
Over the past several years, my wine consumption has increased, spiking like a financial bar graph heralding impending economic ruin. It was time to stabilize the situation. Or, in Catholic parlance, to mortify the flesh. Lent was calling me to change my ways.
When I was young, I only drank at parties with friends. In my 30s, after having two kids, a glass of wine topped off a day of doing double duty at the office and on the domestic front. When I started my own freelance writing business 15 years ago, wine released the steam from pressure-cooker deadlines. Two or three glasses of wine had become an almost daily habit — well above the low-risk drinking guidelines recommended by Canadian health agencies. I noticed that I drank more than my friends. Once, I experienced a blackout after a night of drinking while camping with girlfriends and didn’t remember the next morning how I had gotten back to my tent. I wasn’t a falling-down drunk, and yet there were times at which I lost my balance. Once, at a backyard summer BBQ, wild dancing — fuelled by tequila — caused me to topple into a rose bush. Another time, after an engaging dinner party, where the conversation flowed as freely as the wine, I slid from an ottoman in my friend’s living room when I was putting on my boots to walk home. So perhaps I was in a fallen state, after all.
But my hope is that this liturgical season will lift me back up.
Other people are helping me to rise to the occasion. I created a “Let’s Do Lent” Facebook group and invited friends to join. More than 30 did so, and we’ve been encouraging each other by sharing our Lenten successes and admitting our failures. Most people are giving up things like sugar, social media and shopping. Only two other women are giving up alcohol. A couple of weeks in, one of them no longer misses that first daily glass of wine at 4:30 p.m. The other has abandoned her goals for Lent this time round.
I want my goal to stick and figure it could help if I seek out other drinkers. That’s how I find myself at my first ever Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in Hamilton’s gritty east end. A cloud of shame hangs over the room of 30 people who talk about their “character defects,” the importance of taking a “fearless moral inventory” of their misdeeds and “surrendering to a higher power.” One man, who looks like he could be in a motorcycle gang, says that he has done such terrible things that he can’t even tell his sponsor about them. Another, who’s been sober for 20 years, speaks of the relief that he feels now that his binging days are over. “AA might not get me into heaven, but it sure got me out of hell,” he says. He waxes lyrical when he speaks of the compassion that he feels for the new AA arrivals who walk through the door: “I see the tombstones in their eyes.” Rumi couldn’t have said it better.
Sobriety coins are handed out. They represent the amount of time someone has remained sober. Always a keener, I step forward and collect the first one, a 24-hour silver dollar-shaped coin, and receive a big round of applause. But I feel like a phony, especially at the end of the meeting when everyone holds hands and says the Lord’s Prayer. A lot of these people seem broken. Perhaps I am too, but despite the wisdom and the warmth in this room, I don’t feel as though I belong here.
After I leave the meeting, a man chases me down the street. I’ve forgotten my sobriety coin on the table. He pushes it into the palm of my hand, and I put it in my coat pocket. It’s there still, this cheap silver plastic coin — my own personal AA amulet.
Admittedly, all of the God talk turns me off of AA. But then I discover that there are 10 agnostic AA groups in the Toronto area. And just last month, these groups successfully settled a three-year Ontario Human Rights challenge with the AA organizing body, which was trying to stop them from offering a secular interpretation of the 12-step program.
There is a decidedly different demographic at the We Are Not Saints agnostic AA meeting that I attend. The two dozen people who assemble at a Toronto Unitarian church are well heeled, outfitted in Patagonia jackets, Gap sweaters and expensive footwear. But their problem is the same. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and several people talk about how in years past, they spent this night in a bar, not a church basement. An atheist social worker just out of rehab says that he’s thankful that the meeting doesn’t reference a higher power. He doesn’t need God, he says. What he needs are other people: “I cannot connect to myself unless I can connect to others. I need you guys.”
Larry Knight is also here. Sober since 1993, he’s the one who launched the human rights challenge against AA after realizing many of his non-Christian friends weren’t comfortable talking about their addiction in religious terms. He seconds what the social worker says: “When we aren’t connected, we get sicker. When we are connected, we get better.”
I see the truth in his words. Drink can make us sick. But so can loneliness. So do I have a problem with alcohol? Well, perhaps I do if the problem is that I like it more than most people. But I don’t think that I’m an alcoholic, Still, here in this room, among these people, I experience a sort of communion of saints. I’m reminded of the words of the Unitarian minister George O’Dell: “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted. We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid. We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.”
Perhaps that’s what Lent does: recalls us to our best selves. Perhaps it can trigger transformation even in agnostics. I hope that’ll happen to me — that I’ll be able to rejoice in the riotous abundance from Easter while keeping the celebrating to a two-drink minimum.
Today marks the halfway point of Lent. For the last few weeks, wine has ceased to be the rewarding nightcap to my day. Of course, there have been some slip-ups along the way: a celebratory glass of champagne on a special occasion and a swill of Scotch on a cold winter’s night. But that’s about it. As a result, I’m waking up more refreshed and clearheaded. I even lost five pounds.
I’d be lying, though, if I said that I don’t miss it. Truthfully, I’d love to have a soothing sip of Shiraz right after writing this. But I’m not going to do that. I’ll wait until Sunday. Blessed Sunday.