Lent: The Sweet Refrain

I wrote this a few years ago when I was one of the contributors to a Lenten blog.  For more thoughts on “Lent” and on the purpose of fasting, see my friend Jon Swanson’s recent post on his blog, 300 Words a Day. 


I guess it’s just the way my mind works. A few days ago I found myself pondering the peculiar word ‘refrain.’ How did one word come down to us meaning both ‘stop it!’ and ‘sing it again!’?? I looked up the definition in Webster’s, which was unsatisfactory (and, as it turned out, incorrect in its etymology. First time Noah ever let me down…). I shrugged and tried to move on. But this word kept coming back to me, like a…well, a refrain. 

The handy online dictionaries agree that the verb ‘to refrain’ means “to restrain, forbear or abstain from.” It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to bridle again’. That ‘again’ implies (to my mind anyway) something that was once subdued but which has gotten out of hand; it’s lost control and needs to be restrained… perhaps in order to be retrained?

The noun ‘refrain’ is the repeated chorus section of a song or lyric poem (coming at the end of each verse or stanza), and is derived from a word meaning ‘to break up or refract.’ The refrain “breaks up” the verse, interrupting the flow of thought in order to repeat something which is a summary of the main idea. It’s a reminder of the big picture, the author’s purpose in writing the song or the poem. Whoever sings or speaks this lyric will have a hard time ignoring the point after coming back to the refrain three or more times.

It’s easy to see how refrenare and refrangere could both become refrain in English. But as I thought about these words today, I smiled as other connections occurred to me.  When I refrain from doing something, I resist an impulse to do something which may well be habitual, an ongoing practice. I break up or interrupt the normal flow of my actions—perhaps, something like breaking up a song with repetitions of the chorus?

Lenten observances are often times when we interrupt the flow of ordinary life to remind ourselves of what the Big Picture really is. For instance, regular fasting is a breaking of the cycle of three-meals-a-day, in order to reinforce the larger truth that God IS our source of all good things, our nourishment, our daily bread. Abstaining from a particular food or activity is a self-denial which serves as a reminder that we are to love Jesus more than that…whatever.

(by John Piper. My all-time favorite book on fasting.)

If my life is a song, a hymn of hope, what is the refrain? God is the Satisfaction of all Need, the Fulfillment of all Hope, the Source of all Gifts. It is too easy to let our life song become through-written, a stream-of-consciousness babble. A periodic ‘refrain,’ in both senses, keeps life in harmony with the Composer’s best intent. “…How sweet the sound…”


7 responses to “Lent: The Sweet Refrain

  1. I like this. Yes, pause and look at the song that you sing. Work on the babbling and keep the good. Do that inner search. Thanks! Lent is like spring cleaning – get rid of the crap.

  2. Great post GBL.

    I think Mr. Webster started his dictionary after his wfe said “What do you mean by that?”…

    • Thanks, Hatfield! Since when do men like to explain themselves? I’m surprised it wasn’t a woman who invented the dictionary. 😉

  3. This is a great post! (I love etymology….I’m an onomatomaniac — I’m obsessed with words, their sounds, and their meanings.) It’s also a great post because it makes you think about the greater purpose of life. Thanks for posting a great reminder! 🙂

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