Fasting Defined: A Timeless & Universal Discipline (3/3)

Fasting: Timeless Worship

O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous.  [Qur’an 2:183].

Intrinsic Virtue

Fasting marks the Day of Atonement, Lent and Ramadan, during which times adherents participate in communal abstinence. When our fasting merits Divine acceptance, mere daily living becomes meritorious. It transports us to a Divine Reality of devotion and humility.

Fasting is the meal we eat before dining with God. It is an appetizer to a spiritual feast prepared for us by Providence.

Meanwhile, the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, have something to eat.”  Jesus told them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”  The disciples asked each other, “Did someone bring him something to eat?”  Jesus told them, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do and to finish the work he has given me.” [John 4:31-34].

The physical act of abstaining from food and drink is a uniquely accurate imitation of timeless worship. We may not know the exact contents of ancient devotions, but by simply not eating or drinking, we can feel confident that we are following the path of those human beings whom we most respect and revere.

Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but he has few bearers of His Cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire His tribulation. He finds many comrades in eating and drinking, but He finds few hands who will be with Him in His abstinence and fasting. [Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ].

Fasting provides a unique historical perspective. As we can appreciate an archaeological site where patriarchs stood, so too can we undergo the physical process that their fasts produced.

We can experience the same natural conditions as did the fasting bodies of Moses, the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. We may not be able to attain the elevated spiritual states of the great founders, but our bodies can participate in the same unchanging process.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls … it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. [Leviticus 23:26-31 (KJV)].

Our Inner Self

Fasting is a pilgrimage into a spiritual state hollowed within ourselves. When we fast, we travel to an inner locale where many great religious masters have also gone to find insight and awareness of God.

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].

When we remove the glutting elements of modern society, we are left with a sacred perspective that has resisted change throughout human history.

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. [Matthew 9:14-17 (NIV)].

Archived Emotions

Archived emotions in our social psyche are faithfully recreated by fasting. It is a Divine process that retrieves the spiritual consciousness of our pious predecessors to serve as a memorial commemorating our most sacred moments.

For it was not merely by the light of reason, or of natural conscience, as it is called, that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means to these ends; but they have been, from time to time, taught it of God himself, by clear and open revelations of his will. [John Wesley, Sermon 27, Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 7].

Fasting expands the dimension of time to include thoughts, visions and ideas too broad and far-reaching to fit within the brief reality of transient cultures.

Prayer is reaching out after the unseen; fasting is letting go of all that is seen and temporal. Fasting helps express, deepen, confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God. [Andrew Murray].

The Modern Fast

Eating influences our perspective of reality. We do not eat the same food that are ancestors ate two hundred years ago, much less two thousand. Even when we eat the same items, the nutritional composition and quality of our food is vastly different from that of past civilizations.

In the same way that we attempt to reproduce historical realities by recreating buildings, clothing and language, we can approximate a fundamental human condition by fasting. When we don’t eat, we are eating the same thing.

Fasting is important, more important perhaps, than many of us have supposed, … when exercised with a pure heart and a right motive, fasting may provide us with a key to unlock doors where other keys have failed; a window opening up new horizons in the unseen world; a spiritual weapon of God’s provision, mighty, to the pulling down of strongholds. [Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, p. 9].

Humanity has shared fasting throughout history. It is still a reality where contemporary contamination has been limited. We can personally recreate a physical condition where the modern age has not yet trespassed.

Fasting has always provided a spiritual shield of piety and sanctity. Consumerism has had difficulty infiltrating the boundaries of fasting — although ours may be the only civilization that fasts merely for cosmetic purposes. Nevertheless, amid therapeutic hype and faddish pseudo-science, fasting remains impregnable to modernization.

The purpose of fasting is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world of material things and our surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things. [Ole Kristian O. Hallesby, Prayer, p. 117].

Even the therapeutic and psychological benefits inherent in fasting provide a gateway into the spiritual, transcendent aspects of religious life. Often, what starts with profane motives rises to the level of intimate worship, reflecting our timeless pursuit of Divine awareness.

Today, especially in affluent societies, St. Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever: ‘Enter again into yourself.’ Yes, we must enter again into ourselves, if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake, but indeed, our personal, family and social equilibrium, itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand. [Pope John Paul II].

Related posts:

Further reading:

Fasting: The Ancient Practices by Scot McKnight

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