The liturgical season of Lent is now underway having begun on Ash Wednesday which this year fell of February 10th. It is a time of year when Christians of many denominations are called to examine their conscious, fast, pray and perform acts of charity above and beyond what they would normally do the rest of the year. It is a time of cleansing, atonement and purification of the mind, body and especially soul. It is also a time to refrain from activities that distract us from spiritual matters. In Haiti and New Orleans, practitioners of Voodoo often refrain from undertaking any spiritual workings that are not completely necessary. Going through Lent is not particularly fun, but at the end of this forty day period I always feel renewed and more spiritually and mentally clear. It is curious to note that periods of fasting and reflection exist in many cultures and religions throughout the world. In today’s post, we will examine how fasting is observed in different spiritual traditions and the purpose it serves.
Many world religions observe periods of fasting throughout the year and before special events in one’s life. The purpose of fasting is simple, the observation of a strict set of dietary laws and restrictions and the hunger that it might bring, remind us to keep our mind on spiritual matters rather this indulging in food and the pleasures of the world around us. Also, fasting with other believers in a particular faith creates a sense of community and solidarity. In order for fasting to be spiritually beneficial, it must be accompanied by prayers, spiritual introspection and ideally acts of charity. People often assume fasting to be not taking in any food or water at all for any given period of time, but this is only one form of fasting. Such strict fasting is observed in Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in which people are called to make amends and atone for past sins in order to have their names written in the Book of Life. According to Jewish tradition, the fates of an individual for the following year are inscribed in Heaven in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which proceeds Yon Kippur but ten days. During this period, people have time to repent and make amends for past misdeeds and if their repentance is sincere, they will received a more favorable verdict on Yom Kippur and have their names transcribed in the Book of Life if they are not already there. So, on Yom Kippur to show contrition and repentance, observant Jews abstain from all food and drink for an entire day and pray fervently. Ashkenazi Jews often fast the day before their weddings, which are seen as a personal Yom Kippur and new beginning for the bride and groom. In Islam, similar strict fasting is observed during the month of Ramadan during which Muslims abstain from all food and drink from sunrise until sunset and break the fast in the evening amongst family and friends. Ramadan is also a time to increase charitable donations and study the Koran more in depth.
As a practicing Roman Catholic, I am most familiar with the fasting practices of Christianity. Fasting as a means of repentance and focusing one’s attention of spiritual matters appears many places in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. In preparation for his ministry, Jesus went into the desert and fasted for forty days from which is derived the liturgical season of Lent in preparation for Easter. Christian fasting practices have varied throughout the ages, but today the Lenten guidelines of the Catholic Church are to abstain from meat on all Fridays of Lent and to eat only one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If fasting is too difficult, it is acceptable to substitute prayers or another pious devotion for fasting. In centuries past, fasting rules were much more rigorous and the consumption of all meat and dairy products were forbidden throughout the entire season of Lent. Such is still the practice in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. Eastern churches also observe fasting at other times normally for several weeks before major feast days such as Christmas, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and on every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year. Many Protestant denominations leave fasting up to the individual’s conscious rather than assigning specific days for this practice. In recent years, the Daniel Fast has become quite popular. This is a practice based on the Book of Daniel in the Bible in which several young men are taken from Judah and held captive in Babylon and they instruct their captors that they will only eat fruits and vegetables and drink water in order to avoid breaking any Jewish dietary laws. At the end of a prolonged period, it was clear that these captives were healthier than those who had eaten the same diet as the Babylonians. Many people treat the Daniel Fast as a way to lose some weight, but fasting is a spiritual exercise and amounts to little more than a diet if not accompanied by prayers and acts of charity. I personally keep a vegan fast during Lent and try to attended church services an extra day during the week as well as make a donation to charity.
In addition to the major world religions that we’ve mentioned, I know many Wiccans and practitioners of different Pagan religions who often fast before major holidays and before undertaking certain rituals and they report that as a result of a period of fasting and meditation, their powers increase along with the clarity of their psychic vision. No matter what form of fasting we choose to undertake, it’s important to remember that the purpose of fasting is to cleanse ourselves spiritually and to keep our minds focused on spiritual matters. Above all else fasting periods are also times to perform acts of charity and be especially kind to others.
I hope you have found this post interesting and informative and I thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. As always, I wish you peace, blessings and happiness!