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Fasting for God -- Spiritual Growth through Abstinence

Updated on October 15, 2010
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Eating Habits and the Mind

Don't spoil and fatten the ego by giving it the pleasurable experiences it desires, for this will only give it more power over you. . . Because when the 'stomach' of the 'commanding self' [nafsul-amara] is filled and becomes comfortable, it becomes increasingly insolent and rebellious. Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, The Prince and the Christian Ascetic (part two) Mathnawi V: 3480- 3506.

A person who regularly eats three meals a day, his cereal, bacon and eggs, his pizzas and sodas, his hamburgers, fried chicken, ice cream, desserts, etc., thinks, speaks and acts in a manner reflecting what he consumes.

Likewise, a person with his mind filled with pornographic thoughts, financial schemes, and the next party finds that his appetite for food reflects his state of mind, worldly enjoyments and physical pleasures.

In other words, your mind dictates what you crave, and your tastes complement how you think. Your worldview, what you think of life, and what you do with it are all reflected in your eating habits. It is very difficult to be a wise glutton or ascetic degenerate.

We can change our eating habits by changing our lifestyle. Likewise we can change our general behavior by altering food consumption. Of the two, changing eating patterns is usually easier than changing lifestyle.

We learn from scriptures and sages, as well as from science and doctors, of the real danger of overindulgence. Not only can we become addicted to physical delights, but we can lose sight of our moral and ethical values. In short, we can forget God.

Fasting curbs worldly appetites that tempt and distract us from higher thoughts, wiser speech and loftier deeds. It provides the human system with the opportunity to revitalize itself, and to make contact with its Original Source. As a vine is pruned to produce healthier limbs, so too does fasting produce a healthier human consciousness and greater awareness of God.

Definition of Fasting

Listen and hear the word of warning: “Wide and spacious is the road of gluttony. It leads to the catastrophe of fornication, and there are many who travel that way. The gate is narrow and the way of fasting is hard, that way leading to the life of purity, and there are few to make the journey . . . Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams.” [St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 167].

Scholars generally agree that the English word fast is derived from the Teutonic word for abstinence from food or drink. The early Germanic word fastejan, meaning "to hold, to keep, to observe or to restrain oneself," appears to be the root.

The Spanish word for fasting, ayunar, and the French word jeûner, both come to us from the Latin word jejunium, referring to an animal intestine that remains empty. The meaning suggests a sealing or binding of the stomach.

The primary connotation of fasting is "holding, restraining and binding" as a devotional act. This is manifested in three ways, all related to pleasing God: 1) a binding vow or intention; 2) restraining and controlling an appetite; and 3) holding apart for purification.

Intention to Fast

1).Fasting for God - intent: The fast, usually, begins with a binding oath or vow to perform a spiritual act, either voluntarily or as a ritual obligation. One becomes spiritually bound to hold fast to the vow or promise to God. For example, in the Bible, Jewish enemies of Paul bound themselves, under a "curse oath" (anathematizo), to fast until they had slain him.

The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul (Acts 23:12).

Monastic existence, particularly in Christianity, often requires vows of celibacy. The celibate soon finds that fasting is the best remedy for curing lusty desires. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "the ardor of lust is dampened by abstinence from food and drink."

Under special difficulties, or when in great need of, or great longings after, any particular mercy, for yourself or others, set apart a day for secret prayer and fasting by yourself alone; and let the day be spent, not only in petitions for the mercies you desire, but in searching your heart, and in looking over your past life, and confessing your sins before God, not as it wont to be done in public prayer, but by a very particular rehearsal before God of the sins of your past life, from your childhood hitherto, before and after conversion, with the circumstances and aggravations attending them, and spreading all the abominations of your heart very particularly, and fully as possible, before him. [Jonathan Edwards]

Controlling Your Appetites

2) Fasting for God - self-control: Fasting requires the binding, restraining and holding back of an appetite with the intention to manifest piety. When we hold in check our desire to satisfy the palate, we seek to demonstrate sincerity and devotion.

Similarly, we can hold back our viewing, our talking, our listening and other sources of pleasure and entertainment. For example, a form of Taoist meditation, "xin zhia" "fasting of the mind," focuses on restraining thoughts. Surah19:26 of the Quran tells the story of Maryam (Mary) fasting from speaking after giving birth to Jesus.

So eat and drink and refresh the eye: Then if you see any mortal, say: "Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent God. So I shall not speak to any man today."

Our craving.for food is rarely satisfied, even after we fill our bellies. Food alone can end the hunger that emanate in our soul, so we find ourselves seeking other pleasures to continue indulging. Our mind needs support to help it control such passions. Fasting provides the vehicles to practice discipline.

I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength. Age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies.... A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied [St. John Cassian].


Fasting for Purification

3) Fasting for God - purification: A third binding or restrictive idea in fasting is holding a person apart for purification. For example, the Incas had a particular retreat, Soto, that was called the Isle of Penitence. There they would fast and engage in ceremonies that showed humiliation.

In the Chinese language, zhia means "fasting" but also refers to the preparations aimed at ensuring ritual purity. The Zhai Gong was the "Fasting Palace," where a Chinese emperor fasted for three days before being allowed to worship. In addition to fasting, he abstained from recreation, women, and certain administrative duties.

Fasting for God can also include mortification of the flesh, punishing the body by limiting the diet to bare essentials and eating disliked foods. For example, Christian monks during the early Middle Ages added bitter herbs to meals. They considered fasting to consist not only of restricting the desire to satisfy hunger, but also the pleasures of savoring tasty morsels when the fast was broken. Such restrictions may more appropriately be labeled as abstinence and abnegation.

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks (Daniel 10:3 ESV).

Fasting: Spiritual Benefits

Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD?...(Prov 30:8-9 KJV); see also Deut 8:12; Hosea 13:6.

As we can see, throughout history, fasting has primarily been a religious/devotional act. It affords a believer the ability to demonstrate sincere penance, spiritual commitment and a desire to increase God-consciousness.

In the United States, George Washington issued the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, which would eventually become our November national holiday. President John Adams declared March 6, 1799, a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer to the Most High God. Abraham Lincoln did likewise on August 12, 1861.

Today, we live in a period of greatly diminished faith, having abandoned the paths offered by sacred scriptures. It is likely that ours is the first civilization that fasts for cosmetic purposes. Fasting to appear more attractive to others may possibly be considered an extension of the desire to please God. However, it resembles more the Roman practice of inducing vomiting at banquets to be able to continue eating.

Nevertheless, the therapeutic and psychological benefits inherent in fasting provide a gateway into spiritual and transcendent aspects of our reality. Having abandoned reckless consumption and gained a measure of self-control by fasting, a personal transformation is not far away. Hopefully, what starts with profane, narcissistic motives can rise to the level of worshiping God.

The belly when filled with all kinds of food gives birth to seeds of wantonness, nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts. For not only is drunkenness with wine wont to intoxicate the mind, but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation. The Monastic Institutes - The Training of a Monk and the Eight Deadly Sins by John Cassian


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