Fasting: Simulated Adversity
When R. Shesheth kept a fast, on concluding his prayer he added the following: Sovereign of the Universe, Thou knowest full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him therewith. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Thy will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before Thee on the altar, and do Thou favour me. [Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth, Folio 17a]
In the comfort of modern affluence and security, we often lack natural threats to our survival and forget the physical risks of mortal existence.
Nevertheless, our need to experience conditions of primitive survival remains. This may explain the popularity of reality programs and of virtual simulations that invent artificial risks and allow us to enjoy them passively.
By contrast, fasting is an active exercise for the soul that simulates an “artificial” state of need, yet produces real spiritual conditions that cry out for God.
This is a natural process that God has established in every major religion. Thus, fasting offers a controlled environment for us to strengthen our spiritual awareness.
Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness. [St. Basil the Great, On Fasting].
Fasting alters how we sense, understand and respond to perceived reality. What we see and how we act changes when we fast. When we end the fast, we remember and appreciate the effects, but cannot easily reproduce the state achieved.
A spiritually awake person would see everything as gift, even suffering. We deserve nothing and yet we so often act as though we deserve everything. Nothing should be taken for granted. We should say thank you every day to God and to each other for all that is provided for us. This is one reason why fasting is such an important spiritual discipline. Not just fasting from food, but also fasting from cars, shopping centres, the news – whatever we have an inordinate attachment to. Fasting can help re-kindle our gratitude for all that we have been given. [Glen Argan].
When we fast, our metabolism changes as the body responds to reduced levels of energy. Mental activity and other functions dependent on nutrients are all affected.
Perceived reality shifts as the physical conditions prevailing within us change. To enjoy a dish or a pastime one day and become indifferent or even repulsed by the same thing another day is common when fasting.
A nutritionally satiated person thinks in a particular way and formulates theories, understands facts and reaches conclusions quite differently from that of a fasting person.
Oh you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may attain God-consciousness [Quran 2:183].
Simulated Spiritual Combat
Fasting produces physically measurable states. It also produces conditions not yet scientifically defined that are uniquely spiritual and mystical.
By resembling stressful, needful conditions, fasting simulates “spiritual combat conditions” helpful in reminding us about piety, devoutness and thankfulness.
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].
True Spiritual Awareness
Equally significant is the process of spiritual awareness that fasting can evoke. The way fasting stimulates such God-consciousness is difficult to explain or even describe. A way of looking at this process is to consider human reality as extending to two extreme conditions, one of complete rebelliousness and one of complete submission.
Fasting helps us to train the heart to essentiality and sharing. It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustices, abuses, especially towards the poor and the little ones, and is a sign of our trust in God and His providence. [Pope Francis].
Since we are always consuming and utilizing energy, we do not enjoy a constant, stable disposition toward our environment or our devotions. For example, as we become satiated, then glutted, we often feel increasingly independent, self-sufficient and even arrogant.
Affluence, unchecked, can generate a psychological state arrogance and rebelliousness.
Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage . . . [Deuteronomy 8:11-14].
As we experience hunger and extreme need, we feel dependent, insecure, humble and submissive. How common it is for us to recognize persons in need of help – food, shelter, safety, any basic need – by their demeanor. How common it is for us to turn to God at times of adversity, grief and fear.
He it is Who enableth you to travel on land and sea; so that ye sail with a favourable wind, and rejoice thereat; then comes a stormy wind and waves come from all sides, and they think they are being overwhelmed: they call unto God, sincere in their faith in Him alone, “If Thou wilt but save us from this, we shall most certainly be among the grateful!”
But when He delivereth them, behold! they transgress insolently through the earth in defiance of right! O mankind! your insolence is against your own souls,- an enjoyment of the life of the present: in the end, to Us is your return, and We shall show you the truth of all that ye did. [Quran 10:22-23]