Lent and religion in an English village – how to find use for it

One’s relationship with religion can be deeply emotional, even if that is unbeknownst to oneself. Growing up in a 1980s/1990s village in England with friends who were deeply, familially religious yet being of a single-parent home with a complex family structure there, it is obvious, lay many sticky wickets. Many places where an unconventional boy growing up and his friends some of religious families may find conflict amongst themselves. I remember a day when, walking to the village green to play football, we crossed the dirty grassy track through the bush and my best friend asked me not to say the word “damn” around him, because he found it deeply unsettling and/or offensive. I found it offensive that he was censoring me (though I doubt my inner monologue used that term). We were ten.


Alter cross enshrouded for Lent

My mum did humour me on at least one occasion and we came to the Sunday Baptist service. We did not fit in. It was wierd. From that point onwards the weekly youth activities on a Friday night became more tumultuous and the relationship with the leaders and their children – those they were ultimately doing these groups for – became fractured. To the point where it was indirectly suggested that if the attendees did not go to Sunday services then it was not really for them anymore. We were maybe eleven or twelve. That was the first real experience of religious intolerance that I experienced. There were (as far as I could be aware) no Muslims, Sikhs or Jews in our village  – the most exotic theology was Catholicism and everyone found that family more than a little strange. Though if you ventured into Cambridge sometimes you would see an actual Buddhist monk wandering around in orange robes. That was like seeing an alien. Really.

The village had a divide – in that divide there were two sects: the builders with their Sunday morning football, weekly sermons at the pub on a Friday and Saturday which felt like something from witch-hunting days – families that seemed to be famous in the village, faces you recognised but you knew would never recognise you. Then there were the religious families, equally as famous, but in more of an old-village, rather than new-village way. Perhaps my outsider status with both groups afforded me clarity of perspective.  That was not unique to me, it wasn’t a particularly small village, at least not when I finally left – when I was born it was a three or four hundred homes lighter. Neither side were welcoming, both were intolerant in their own way and so organised religion and old-fashioned village bigots became two sides of the same coin.

Fortunately my mother was deeply open-minded and curious for her children, she brought us up with a deep curiousity in other religions and cultures. She took a stance that was intentionally opposed to village bigotry. She read us stories from the Ramayana, voted Green, practiced yoga and made sure we felt we could be whatever we wanted. It was a great gift. Especially since the village often conditioned us to laugh at those values.

But now, as an established adult, how does one make peace with traditional English religion and values and embrace the good things like Lent – the forty days preceding Easter Sunday whilst being more mindful of their history? Well, when I was a kid I’d often give up sweets for Lent, and then pig out on them after Easter. But I gave up junk food a month or so ago (and have never had more energy in my life) so I need to find something else. I didn’t even have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (something established to get rid of fatty ingredients in the house before the fasting of Lent). So what can someone who does nor partake in the new British tradition of dieting on junk food give up?

I shall give up negative thinking.

But why? Why do we bother giving anything up for Lent? Penance – absolution before God. Something any good, god-fearing Westerner ought to do, right?

Well, I’m trying to avoid ruining my mental health at the moment – I’m getting my body, mind and soul in shape and I don’t think that I need to berate myself for my sins. In fact, I do not necessarily think that I need to rid myself of them. Yes, for some it may work in the traditional Christian way, but it does not work for me. I’ve done bad things. I’ve been a bad person. We all have. I’m not going to repress it and develop a personality disorder, that just can’t be healthy. So I’m not going to try and self-harm myself into ridding me of negativity, instead I’m going to embrace harnessing negative thinking (and more obviously talking negatively) by what I’ve read in Pema Chödrön’s ‘Start Where You Are’ which described Tonglen meditation. I’m not going to ignore my history and the traditions of my environment, instead I’m going to try and embrace the opportunity. I’m also not going to beat myself around the face repeatedly until my mind falls in line – I’m going to trust what many others have found deeply rewarding and I think it’s going to work really well (see, I’m being positive already!)

Brazil World Cup 2014 and the England national team – identity and international opinion

I can’t imagine that there are many around the world who associate England with World Cup victory. England won in 1966 against West Germany at Wembley in London with a squad of names some of which are still etched into children’s minds, those footballing heroes clad in red England shirts. England knows this, does the rest of the world? Gone is Beckham, gone is Owen and the golden gormless generation and time has passed and perceptions will inevitably have changed since then. Hooliganism isn’t a default association with English football supporters, and the UK doesn’t have a default association to the special relationship with George Bush and the U.S.A. Indeed some claim that at the moment, the United Kingdom has a strong cultural influence around the world, with the 2012 London Olympics and the royal marriage of William and Kate there are even claims that England‘s national team is perceived positively by other nations.

In previous international tournaments I was ashamed to be seen as English for a long time. In that less than honourable time incidents included Euro 96, held in England, where after Gareth Southgate missed a sudden-death penalty to knock England out of the tournament, ugliness included a drunken rampage in Trafalgar Square and a Russian student stabbed five times because the idiots thought he had a German accent. There was fighting during the 1998 World Cup in France, a serious threat to be expelled from Euro 2000 hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands (a short train ride from England). Then in Euro 2004 Portugese communities were attacked close to their homes in England by thugs after the defeat to Portugal. Before there was a perception that was made all too accurately in national English football in the 1980s a time of disgusting behaviour, then we get Football Factory and Green Street romanticising club hooliganism. These things take time to move on.

I’m older now, in my late twenties – I was a young teenager during France 1998. Masculinity is going through a crisis (just look at the comments in this link to see what I mean) and I just can’t shake the feeling that English football supporters are different nowadays, I’m not saying the world has turned and we’re all coloured tolerant, just that something’s changed.

There’s no doubt that the consensus is that there isn’t much hope in England for this tournament but I’ve not even seen any England flags on cars as Will Buckley in his best miserly journalist impression predicted in 2013. What’s more, the most positivity towards the England team in The Mirror as of the day of the first game between Brazil and Croatia is that Wayne Rooney believes the squad is “probably the best squad of players I have been involved with since I have been with England. Turning to The Sun and, I’m actually rather shocked to say this but the rhetoric is that we just want them to ‘have a go’. <sarcastic face>What on earth are the tabloids doing?</sarcastic face> If they keep this up then there might actually not be an unbearable amount of pressure on the team’s shoulders.

Money has changed the ‘beautiful game’, of that everyone can agree. At the World Cup, the top three teams (financial worth) Germany, Spain and England – are worth more than £1.7bn collectively. This is more than the bottom 20 teams combined”. Agents dominate and we have ridiculous headlines about divas like Yaya Toure whining about a birthday cake. However, crisis of character appears in many teams – we have France and racist accusations, Germany who responded with an admirable investment in youth, and Italy where damage to club football has damaged the national team.

So putting panic and crisis aside, acknowledging that actually England isn’t the only national team demoralising their fellow countrymen and women and the rather convincing article that points out that England are actually in quite a good position and you never know – the England national team could be OK after all., it’s time to rebuild à la Germany!

Still, it could be worse – I could be a USA ‘soccer’ fan trying to enjoy the World Cup.