In its earliest sense, Lent referred to the lengthening of days in the spring. The association of the term with fasting is more recent, especially in the English speaking world.

But the custom of fasting in the days before Easter has been practised since the first Christian centuries. The forty weekdays preceding Easter (our ‘Lenten fast’) has a long history.

This time of fasting is first mentioned in the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the number forty evidently suggested by the forty day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and of course of our Lord Himself.

Until recent times, the emphasis of this period has been on physical fasting and discipline such as the abstaining from certain foods (usually meat), and the reduction in the number or the size of meals. The careful regulation of bodily desires and appetites continues its importance for many of us, but such watchful concern can become superficial and hide the significance of what we are really doing.

Our souls will not necessarily become lighter through physical denial. The Lenten fast is a special time for renewed penitence, increased awareness of the needs of others (the old term is ‘almsgiving’), and the regular exercise of religious devotion through prayer and worship.

I suppose I’m like others - always seeking action or accomplishment, even in the midst of a ‘good’ Lenten fast. Yet I’d like to learn also how to use these days of Lent contemplatively, as T.S. Eliot commends in “Ash Wednesday” (1930), a deeply reflective poem that he wrote on the eve of his conversion to the Christian faith: ‘Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still’, he prays.

Perhaps during this Lenten fast one might reflect on the trust from which best action must surely spring: ‘My soul, wait thou in silence upon God: / for my hope is in him’ (Ps. 62: 5).

George Herbert captures something of what I am trying to say in his poem “Lent” (1633). He begins, ‘Welcome dear feast of Lent’, and observes that ‘The humble soul composed of love and fear / Begins at home’. Then at the end of the poem he urges us to reach out into the world and embrace those who have been deprived of its abundance:

...Lord instruct us to improve our fast

By starving sin and taking such repast,

As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,

Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,

And among those his soul.

This is the story of conversion, of that always incomprehensible moving of the Holy Spirit. In looking inward, one is enabled also to see outward.

Fasting leads to a feast.

Paul Stanwood, a member of St. James’ parish in Vancouver, is professor emeritus of English literature at the University of British Columbia. His field is the Renaissance and seventeenth-century English literature, and he is a world authority on the poet John Milton.