Fasting & Humility: Tailor-made Sackcloth for the Soul

 Fasting to Dress the Soul

. . . I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. [Psalm 35:13].

A dose of voluntary self-deprivation such as fasting is often helpful in enhancing our devotional live and strengthening our faith. By restraining worldly appetites, we offer a modest personal sacrifice that seeks to purify our spirit and humble our ego.

O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God. [Quran 2:183].

Leaving secular pursuits and transient desires behind, for a while, we hope to make the Divine Presence our primary focus.

Fasting produces a condition of body and mind that optimizes consciousness of God. It generates a spiritual process that dilutes secular concerns and enhances piety. Fasting prepares us to recognize the presence of God, and to purify our soul by clothing our thoughts with respect for the holy.

O CHILDREN of Adam! Indeed, We have bestowed upon you from on high [the knowledge of making] garments to cover your nakedness, and as a thing of beauty: but the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all. Herein lies a message from God, so that man” might take it to heart [Quran 7:26].

Fasting and Humility

Fasting is only a preliminary ceremony, to be accompanied by prayer, worship and spiritual exercises. These continue the purification of the soul, inducing humility, prompting sober thoughts and generating submission.

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite – the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride: involuntary hunger subjects appetites and will together to the Divine Will, furnishing an occasion for submission and exposing us to the danger of rebellion. But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices, which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; as an end, they  would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite  and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self.  [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain].

The body, rendered weak and vulnerable, cries for its Lord. The floundering mind acknowledges its incomprehension of reality and its limited capacity to understand itself. It too cries for its Lord.

The fasting slave is now nourished by remembrance of the Divine, an ineffable mixture of visions and awareness — a fragrance that permeates the senses, a taste of an intangible substance. This is nothing that the body or mind can control, for the ability, energy and strength of both have been abandoned.

And it [fasting] is chiefly, as it is a help to prayer, that it  has so frequently been found a means, in the hand of God, of confirming and increasing, not one virtue, not chastity only …  but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience, deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God, and every holy and heavenly affection. [Sermons of John Wesley, #27, Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse Seven].

Divine Presence

When there is little left of the personal ego, the helpless slave submits, ready to do whatever the Lord commands. Our hope and wish being to remain in sacred service.

A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego—he alone can attain real peace. [Bhagavad Gita 2:71].

Now, neither mind nor body can describe, define or measure reality. God alone is the measure, and this reality can only be described as a Divine Presence, for there is nothing comparable.

The touch of God can be slight, a feathery grace – less that a breeze, lower than a whisper – that leaves the entire soul fulfilled, satiated, for as long as the touch is remembered. Yet, when the body and mind awake and the senses resume control, the touch becomes as a dream. The more it is sought, the more thought and reasoning interfere.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. [Ephesians 4:2 (NIV)].

However, Divine remembrance remains whenever humility prevails and our soul is still. Strange condition this, which cannot be attained by our intellect or skill. Our perception, accustomed to dependence on body and mind, struggles in this state, where God provides all, and only worship is effective.

Restrain thyself along with those who cry unto their Lord at morn and evening, seeking His Countenance; and let not thine eyes overlook them, desiring the pomp of the life of the world; and obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who followeth his own lust and whose case hath been abandoned. [Quran 18:8].

May God grant us entrance into the Divine Presence. May He grant us the willpower to discard selfish impediments hindering and obstructing our awareness. May He guide us from our secular drunkenness into ecstatic sobriety.

May the reality of God’s Presence be manifested in the thoughts of our mind, words of our mouth and the works of our hands.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. [Deuteronomy 8:2-3 (NIV)].

Further reading:

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