Fasting of the Heart
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster… [Joel 2:12-13 (ESV)].
Fasting is a private war within our inner self for control of the will. It is a struggle against the seductive appetites and transient pleasures that take on the guise of necessary and vital activities.
Contemplating the essential relationship we enjoy with our Creator requires our undivided attention. However, temporal and material phenomena can dominate our thoughts and obscure the full dimension of transcendent reality.
Thoughts congested with transitory interests and laden with episodic concerns find spiritual flight difficult. Mired in mundane trivia, we continually react to momentary passions while retracing recurring discontent.
And, as with all transient pleasures, after we give in and partake, we remorsefully wonder what made us lose our willpower: “What made us give in?”
When you are going to fast, observe it in this way: first, avoid any evil and desire, and purify your heart of all the vain things in the world. Your fast will be perfect if you do this. [The Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude].
Fasting of the heart seeks inner peace by discarding self-deception and egocentric desires. The intellect is silenced while the soul listens for Divine instruction — submissive, obedient.
Contemplation of the Divine Reality brings our existence in proper perspective. During such periods of spiritual consciousness, we can better focus our mind on thoughts of higher import and elevated awareness.
Yen Hui: What is fasting of the heart?
Confucius: The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being… The hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.
There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind. Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
Yen Hui: I see. What was standing in my way was my own self-awareness. If I can begin this fasting of the heart, self-awareness will vanish. [Quotations from Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton].
Refuge from the Transitory
In the hectic pace of modern existence, less time is available for private moments of tranquil and pensive contemplation. The ever-intrusive media, our commercial endeavors, social and domestic demands, and our indulgence in recreation and entertainment leave little time for any serious thinking.
We must establish a sacred place within ourselves where we can take refuge from transitory concerns to better meditate and contemplate our Lord.
Why is it necessary to have moments of profound thinking and remembrance of God? We fast to remove the mind from mundane concerns of everyday reality and focus on significant matters that have eternal consequences. We seek to remove distractions, dissipate illusions and vitalize the process of Divine contemplation.
When we believe and trust in the complete power of God, tranquility prevails. Whenever we remember this all-encompassing force, we find ourselves transformed.
Stand only near the man who fasts, and you will straightway partake of his good odour; for fasting is a spiritual perfume; and through the eyes, the tongue, and every part, it manifests the good disposition of the soul. [John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues, Homily 10].
We fast with our stomach when we don’t put food into it. Our heart fasts when we meditate and contemplates only the Divine. The fasting heart abstains from love of the world and is filled only with the love of God.
A fasting heart is able to make the tongue fast with it, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”… Therefore, if your heart abstains from sin, your tongue will abstain from every evil word. He who fasts the heart, can also make his body fast also. Therefore, what is important is for the heart and thought to abstain from every wrong desire assisted by the fasting of the body, which is the least of all…. Control your thoughts and yourself. [H. H. Pope Shenouda III, The Spirituality of Fasting, p. 90].
Fasting shelters the believer. When the sincere belief in God permeates our heart, we are protected from external corruption. Fasting of the heart reinforces our spiritual armor to resist worldly enticements and sensual temptations.
The Fast of the [spiritually elevated] Elite means fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, in total disregard of everything but God, Great and Glorious is He. This kind of Fast is broken by thinking of worldly matters, except for those conducive to religious ends, since these constitute provision for the Hereafter and are not of this lower world. [Abu Hāmed al-Ghazālī, The Mysteries of Fasting the Month of Ramadan].
Power of God
The more we are distracted from the truly significant aspects of our lives, the more we sink into material distractions, inconsequential pursuits and unsatisfying relations.
… Samad refers to Allah’s absolute transcendence from the material world. In fasting the observer disengages from his body and transcends his material needs in emulation of God. Through the sublimation of the need for food or drink, in fasting one assumes the quality of samad; a divine space is carved in the heart of the faithful. Observing Ramadan as such modulates to an inner religious experience; Ramadan is the fast of the heart . . . This renunciation of pleasure, the fast of the heart, is to be understood as an act of love and as a personal offering to Allah himself. [Dr. Ali Qleibo, Ramadan: Fasting of the Heart].
Fasting complements the rituals and liturgy of religion by adding an inner dimension to our faith. Fasting offers the intellect a rest from confusing stimuli, a way to transcend cognition and to affirm a spiritual reality. It desensitizes the mind to allow penetration into the heart.
Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love. [Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 100].
May Almighty God give us strength of will to fast. May our fasting be with our hearts seeking to please Him alone. May we grow in faith and purity from this fasting of the heart and may it bring us closer to our Lord.
The reward of God is best for those who believe and work righteousness: but this none shall attain, save those who steadfastly persevere. [Quran 28:80].