“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. [Joel 2:12-13 (NIV)].
We often strive to attain lofty spiritual states by physical and intellectual efforts. Being accustomed to the cause and effect models of material existence, we assume this methodology extends into the spiritual realm. We think we can accumulate piety by adorning ourselves with spiritual costumes, attending religious ceremonies and quoting a few passages of scripture — or by fasting.
In order to preserve the mind and body in a perfect condition, abstinence from food is not alone sufficient: unless the other virtues of the mind as well are joined to it … And so humility must first be learned … anger should be controlled … vainglory should be despised, the disdainfulness of pride trampled under foot, and the shifting and wandering thoughts of the mind restrained by continual recollection of God. [John Cassian, The Book of Fasts and Abstinence. Chapter X]
When we neglect to sublimate our intentions or fail to purify our thoughts, fasting offers minimal spiritual benefits. Striving for lofty states of awareness to satisfy base physical desires is incompatible with Divine service. Such efforts may have material value, but they do not enhance spiritual purity or divine consciousness.
Not nakedness, not platted hair, not dirt, not fasting, or lying on the earth, not rubbing with dust, not sitting motionless, can purify a mortal who has not overcome desires. [Dhammapada 10.141].
Fasting can become an empty ritual devoid of piety and sincerity. Negative thoughts, self-righteousness, anger and pride can all infect our mind and our heart.
Often, we don’t realize the type of person we have become. The image we hold of ourselves may be so misleading that if someone were to hold a mirror before us, we wouldn’t recognize the person.
Selfish desire is found in the senses, mind, and intellect, misleading them and burying wisdom in delusion. Fight with all your strength, Arjuna! Controlling your senses, conquer your enemy, the destroyer of knowledge and realization. [Bhagavad Gita 3:40-41].
Human beings can corrupt almost anything, no matter how good or sacred may be its origin or purpose. We can easily pervert charity, kindness and mercy into acts of hypocritical selfishness, exploiting them for personal gain or recognition. And, so it is with fasting.
The Fast of the … [spiritually elevated] 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. [Imam al-Ghazali, The Mysteries of Fasting the Month of Ramadan].
Pride in Fasting
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of fasting is that it can become a personal ambition, a mental objective to be attained for selfish desires. In other words, a person who initially fasts for pious, spiritual reasons may become so gratified with abstaining from food that the act, itself, develops into a goal. The physical accomplishment of not eating replaces the spiritual goal of seeking God-consciousness.
Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself” [Desert Fathers].
We cultivate our spirit by pulling out the weeds of desire growing near our soul. Lust for wealth, power, fame and glory often go deeper than we realize. We must root them out and quell the uncontrollable hunger they arouse.
The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But as long as you don’t ask it to change, the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing. [Keating, Thomas, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation].
This is the common danger that runs through all spiritual practices. We see it in persons who pray or give in charity merely to be seen and admired. We see it in spiritual leaders who haughtily exult in their religious knowledge or their position over a congregation. We become proud and arrogant, and lose all that we might have gained.
Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It [fasting] is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection [St. Jerome].
The economic and social rituals of our secular work and play seek shortcuts that bypass our heart. We buy into ads and media scripts, and then find ourselves mere caricatures in a technologically infused culture. The Divine Reality is nowhere to be seen.
Such debilitating results occur when we reduce the purpose of the fast to worldly ends. We may experience many physical and material benefits from fasting. But, fasting is never an end in itself.
In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not in themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained to through them [St. John Cassian, Conference One].
The fact that we are seeking God and that fasting heightens our spiritual awareness must remain paramount. Fasting should not become another idol on the altar of the material stage.
[Jesus added,]Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 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].