Fasting Defined: Ecclesiastical, Therapeutic & Natural Fasts (2/3)

Ecclesiastical, Therapeutic and Natural Fasting

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work–whether native-born or an alien living among you – because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves . . . This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” [Leviticus 16:29-34 NIV]

Ecclesiastical Fasts

The word “ecclesia” is derived from Greek ekklesia (a congregation or assembly) and ekkletos (to call out). When our fast observes the rites and methodology prescribed by our religious creed, we are engaged in ecclesiastical fasting.

Theological systems and their liturgical ceremonies offer rules and regulations that facilitate our acts of worship. Our rabbis, priests, gurus and imams guide us in observing the fast as a community of believer following a divine law.

And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes. [Daniel 9:3].

However, no religion claims a patent or copyright on acts of worship such as prayer, supplication and charity. Repentance, compassion and morality are not the invention or possession of any theological system. Likewise, no religion claims authorship of fasting.

Fasting is a universal institution whose origin is firmly fixed in the nature of human beings. We interpret and implement the practice in various ways, but the need to fast is ensconced within our soul.

(Fast) during a certain number of days. But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, [shall fast instead for the same] number of other days; and [in such cases] it is incumbent upon those who can afford it to make sacrifice by feeding a needy person. 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 knew it. [Quran 2:184].

Therapeutic Fasts

Fasting as a therapy in medicine has an ancient history. Traditional healing systems have long recommended it for prevention as well as curing. Ayurveda, the Hindu science of health and medicine, advocates fasting as a major treatment.

When properly applied and conducted, therapeutic fasting is one of the most potent tools available for assisting the body in healing itself. When abused or applied injudiciously, harm can result. The most important advice I can give anyone regarding fasting is this. If you are going to undertake a fast, do it right or don’t do it. [Alan Goldhamer, D.C., Therapeutic Fasting, An Introduction to the Benefits of a Professionally Supervised Fast]. 

In Western medicine, Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), the Greek physician who laid the foundations of scientific medicine, believed a fast helped the body heal itself. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the Swiss physician who pioneered treatment based on observation advocated fasting to remedy certain illnesses.

Fasting followed by vegetarian diet has shown to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, moreover fasting is frequently used as an adjunctive treatment in chronic pain and stress/exhaustion syndromes … Short-term fasting in inpatients with pain and stress syndromes is safe and well tolerated … [US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Abstract].

Today, therapeutic fasting is common in spas and treatment centers, particularly in Europe. The therapeutic fast has also become a popular therapy for detoxification, the eliminating or neutralizing of toxins believed to be responsible for physical illnesses. An increasing number of medical practitioners are also finding therapeutic fasting appropriate for treating obesity and exposure to food additives and chemicals.

Scientists funded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that volunteers who followed a low-calorie diet or a very low-calorie diet not only lost weight, but also significantly enhanced their immune response. The study may be the first to demonstrate the interaction between calorie restriction and immune markers among humans. [USDA Agricultural Research Service].

Natural Fasts

The wretchedness of our soul and the agony of our body often find food repulsive. As we recover, having found a measure of relief in abstinence, we remember the state of not eating and record it as a lesson learned, a path discovered, naturally.

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot Me. [Hosea 13:6 (NIV)].

Both medical doctors and religious doctrines have noted this natural remedy and now prescribe it to us in standard formulas and defined dosage. We need to be cautious, however, that our fast does not become a rust-covered ecclesiastical observance or a faddish pseudo-science experience.

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response to a grievous sacred moment in life … [A] unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body. For this kind of body image, fasting is natural.  Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. [Scot McKnight, Fasting: The Ancient Practices, xx; 11].

We do not fast for Yom Kippur, Advent, Lent, or Ramadan; we fast for God. Moreover, the therapeutic fast does not treat the hardened heart. It is God who has prescribed the fast.

With respect to … spiritual gluttony, there is much to be said, for there is scarce one of these beginners who, however satisfactory his progress, falls not into some of the many imperfections which come … on account of the sweetness which they find at first in spiritual exercises. For many of these, lured by the sweetness and pleasure which they find in such exercises, strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion, which is that which God regards and accepts throughout the spiritual journey. [Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross].

Religions seek to facilitate our encounter with God. Doctrines and canons delineate how, when and if to fast. But, our fast is only for God. Institutions and professionals merely follow natural instructions divinely prescribed — and it is God whom we seek to please.

Now it has been stated above that fasting is useful as atoning for and preventing sin, and as raising the mind to spiritual things. And everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes. Wherefore fasting in general is a matter of precept of the natural law, while the fixing of the time and manner of fasting as becoming and profitable to the Christian people, is a matter of precept of positive law established by ecclesiastical authority: the latter is the Church fast, the former is the fast prescribed by nature. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica].

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