Joyfully giving up consumerism for Lent
I wonder how many of us enjoyed pancakes in one form or another on Pancake Day this week, and how many of us then considered giving up chocolate or wine until Easter! The reason for the feasting, as most of you will know, comes from the Christian tradition of Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday), the final day before the start of Lent, when people eat up all the ‘fatty foods’ to clear the food cupboard before Ash Wednesday when the Lenten period of fasting begins. There is also a tradition within the Church of spending time on Shrove Tuesday in reflection about, and repentance for, sins. This is the spiritual equivalent - clearing ‘the cupboard of the heart’ of distractions of the mind in anticipation of Easter.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senior School had our traditional Ash Wednesday service which brought the school together for the distribution of ashes placed on the forehead as a sign of repentance for things that we would wish to ‘clear out’ and ‘put away’ from us. Father John Minh from OLEM spoke to the Senior School community about the parable of the Prodigal Son. He explained how we needed to be both like the son in terms of recognising our errors and asking for forgiveness and like the father in terms of his compassion, love and forgiveness towards others. During the Ash Wednesday service for the Junior School, Father Peter Raj, also from OLEM, helped our younger pupils to approach Lent through thinking about the acronym JOY: ‘J’ is for Jesus, ‘O’ is for others, and ‘Y’ is for you: during Lent the girls might choose to think first of Jesus, then of others, and then of themselves.
We are also almost half way through Fairtrade Fortnight and so we have been reflecting on the importance of ethical consumerism. As part of our Lenten preparation and to support Fairtrade Fortnight, students in the Senior School participated in their second ‘hunger lunch’ of the year on Ash Wednesday, raising funds for CAFOD by swapping their normal hot lunch (for which they have paid) for a much simpler lunch of bread and soup. The girls’ lunch payment raised approximately £270 which will be donated to CAFOD’s work around the world, in solidarity with those who regularly go without food.
You may have already seen a promotional video by Fairtrade highlighting the potential issues associated with buying bargain priced produce. Fictional grocer, Farley & Bell, offers high street shoppers food at ‘unbelievably cheap prices’. On delivery to people’s homes, children emerge from the back of the delivery van to deliver the heavy crates of food to customers’ homes. People are surprised at first, and quickly voice their concerns for the children’s welfare. The actors explain that Farley & Bell is a fictional business, but highlight that there are many retailers who stock food at low prices without consideration of the working conditions and breaches of human rights involved in keeping prices down. What an effective stunt!
The students in our Eco-committee are promoting the fortnight’s theme – ‘putting Fairtrade in your break’ – by selling raffle tickets at break time for a chance to win an enormous hamper of Fairtrade (primarily chocolate) goodies. The Charities Prefects are working with Mr Daniel Bennett, Head of Religious Education and Director of Christian Life, to re-launch our Fairtrade stall towards the end of the fortnight – and have just placed their first order! The Prefects are also preparing to present assemblies to their peers about Fairtrade Fortnight over the coming week.
As well as considering consumer habits in terms of workers’ welfare, we might also reflect on the environmental impact of our consumerism. Last month Mr Bennett gave an assembly about Pope Francis’ 180 page letter to all of the world’s inhabitants (Laudato Si) with a call to care for ‘our common home’ – our planet. In this slightly more accessible five minute animated summary of the letter, the haunting point is made that “our common home has never been so hurt and mistreated as it has been in the last 200 years. We have developed at a greater speed than we could ever have imagined; we have treated the earth as if it has an unlimited supply of resources… The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. The link between climate change and the devastation caused especially to the poorest of the earth’s people is emphasised, and yet there seems to be no slowing down or adapting of the life styles of the richest nations which are consuming, and wasting, at an alarming rate, “leaving a trail of waste and destruction”.
The call to action is that we must undergo an ‘eco-conversion’, “in which we listen to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. This means that we need to start taking seriously the use of plastic and paper; reducing water waste; properly separating rubbish and recycling; using public transport; and, most of all, “we need to slow down on how much we consume and throw away” by living simply, instead of always being on the lookout for what we don’t have.
One of the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School on which we are reflecting especially this academic year is ‘Seeing good in all creation’, and so our message of this year is excellently aligned with Pope Francis’ urgent plea. At school we are re-visiting our re-cycling opportunities and being more challenging with the local council with regards to plastic bottles in particular.
My hope for everybody during Lent is that when we think about what we might like to give up, we make sure to do so by considering what will benefit the greater good. This could mean that instead of giving up eating chocolate, we give up eating chocolate that is not Fairtrade. Similarly, instead of giving up treating ourselves to a take away coffee, we could give up the part of the process that creates waste by way of plastic lids by taking our own travel cups with us.
I received an email this week from Fairtrade with an offer of 20 percent off food and drink during Fairtrade Fortnight – at least you can be sure that a reduced price offer from Fairtrade will be one that is not harming the suppliers. Let us all start - or continue - to keep our consumerism habits in check over Lent and on through Easter and beyond and to focus on how we can share what we have with others: if you go without a particular luxury, why not donate the money saved to a worthy cause; if you treat yourself, why not also treat the local foodbank or homeless shelter; if you have some good fortune financially, why not give some away to share the good fortune more widely? In this way we can contribute to the welfare of our own hearts, our neighbours, and the world, which is given to all of us as our home.