19. Divine Approval and Rewards
. . . But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. [Matthew 6:16-18].
Ultimately, God alone is the object of our spiritual fasting, and only God can reward us for it. We thank God for this gift of awareness that emanates from a merciful Creator, awareness facilitated by a Divinely prescribed remedy: fasting.
However highly works may be estimated, they have their whole value more from the approbation of God than from their own dignity. For who will presume to plume himself before God on the righteousness of works, unless in so far as He approves of them? Who will presume to demand of Him a reward except in so far as He has promised it? It is owing entirely to the goodness of God that works are deemed worthy of the honor and reward of righteousness; and, therefore, their whole value consists in this, that by means of them we endeavor to manifest obedience to God. [John Calvin, Book 3:11, The Institutes of The Christian Religion].
As we have seen, fasting is a multi-purpose remedy prescribed for our soul. However, the expressed approval by God of our humble efforts is the paramount motivation for fasting. It is this Divinely promised reward for abstinence that holds the greatest value.
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, Allah said, “All the deeds of Adam’s sons (people) are for them, except fasting which is for Me, and I will give the reward for it.” [Sahih Bukhari, Bk. 31, No. 128].
When we fast, we engage in a spiritual exodus into a hollowed state within ourselves. We travel to an inner space where many great religious masters have also gone to find insight and Divine awareness.
Now while we live in time, we must abstain and fast from all joy in time, for the sake of that eternity in which we wish to live; although by the passage of time we are taught this very lesson of despising time and seeking eternity. [St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Ch.16]
By fasting, we discard frivolity for solemnity, spiritual dryness for heartfelt gratitude, fear for resolve, and pride for humility. The fast carries us ever nearer to the Divine Reality we seek.
The Prophet said, “There is a gate in Paradise called Ar-Raiyan, and those who observe fasts will enter through it on the Day of Resurrection and none except them will enter through it.” [Sahih Bukhari, Book 31: Volume 3].
The Fasting Heart
True spiritual fasting is clearly beyond the body or mind, for by our fast we have abandoned strength, cognition and intellect. We cannot describe, define or measure the fasting heart.
The degree of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl). But all these expressions are wrong . . . Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse — “What I experience I shall not try to say; Call me happy, but ask me no more.” [Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Confessions of al-Ghazali].
What we do understand is that the fasting servant is nourished by consciousness of the Divine, an ineffable mixture of visions and awareness. It is an ecstatic taste of something intangible, a fragrance infused into the mind that permeates the senses.
Fasting causes the mind to be cleansed constantly. It whithers up every evil thought and brings healthy, godly thoughts — holy thoughts that enlighten the mind and kindle it with more zeal and spiritual fervor [Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Mount Athos, “Counsels from the Holy Mountain“].
To find the peace and contentment we seek, we must change planes. We must disembark and enter a new dimension. Our current reality does not contain what we are looking for. God alone is its measure, and His Presence cannot be described, only experienced. There is nothing comparable unto Him.
For there is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love Thee for Thine own sake, whose joy Thou Thyself art. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to Thee, of Thee, for Thee; this is it, and there is no other. For they who think there is another, pursue some other and not the true joy. [St. Augustine, Confessions, Ch. 22].
The rewards that God promises are wrapped in metaphors and parables. They resemble the joys and pleasures of this world’s existence, but when touched by the Divine, they are unique, distinct. The same worldly pleasure when sublimated by God’s presence becomes heavenly, celestial.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. [C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 1].
Every sense of true pleasure and happiness originates with God. He enriches, provides, and sustains us. Whatever may be our need or desire in this world God provides it. And for those who believe and work righteously, God has promised an eternal reward beyond our imagination.
And [as for all such believers,] no human being can imagine what blissful delights, as yet hidden, await them [in the life to come] as a reward for all that they did. [Quran 32:17].
May our fasts be accepted and may God allow us to enter His Divine Presence. May He grant us the willpower to discard selfish impediments hindering and obstructing our awareness. May He guide us from our secular sobriety into sacred ecstasy.
And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves – if you but only knew it. [Quran 2:183-4]