Fasting for Catharsis, Renewal & Purification
As for those who avoid the [truly] grave sins and shameful deeds – even though they may sometimes stumble — behold, thy Lord is vast in forgiveness. He is fully aware of you when He brings you into being out of dust, and when you are still hidden in your mothers’ wombs: do not, then, ascribe purity (to) yourselves. He knows best who is conscious of Him. [Quran 53:32].
Can food, or abstaining from food, make us more righteous or less evil? Does eating really affect our spirit?
The answer to these questions is probably a qualified “yes.” To the extent that food is the source of energy for our body, it can enhance or deter any conduct, good or evil. In addition, the functioning of our brain can be significantly altered by what we put in our mouth and send to our stomach.
However, merely consuming pure foods or abstaining from eating cannot purify our soul. Only the Divine Presence can do that.
What are the conditions under which the soul may experience the presence of God? In a word, purity. Consider Ephrem’s first hymn… “Fasting secretly purifies the soul / So it can gaze on God and grow by the vision of Him. / For the weight that is from the earth, bends it back to the earth. / Blessed is he who gave us fasts,/ The sheer wings by which we fly to Him.” [Ephrem the Syrian, quoted in Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Baha’i Faith by Christopher Buck].
Catharsis is often part of the purification process. It refers to ridding the body of internal impurities. The connotation is that we are removing foreign or objectionable elements to unclog a congested vessel. Physically, we use herbs and medications to stimulate bowel movement and help eliminate intestinal waste.
Purification can also come from filtration and exclusion. Preventing new toxins from entering our body can help prolong our purification. A fast gives our body time to discharge, naturally, the accumulated debris of prodigal existence.
In a religion sense, it means to free a person from moral or spiritual defilement. Thus, ritual states of purity demanded by religious ceremonies and sacraments often includes fasting.
Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. [Didache 7.4].
With body cleansed, the mind is next for purification. Excessive indulgence in worldly pleasures increases irreverent frivolity, disregard of sacred matters, and forgetfulness of our deeper aspirations.
Our reasoning process has to be attuned to the Divine frequency. Our tongue, our eyes, our ears must align with the Divine Order.
In as much as it is necessary to cleanse and purify the body, so necessary, or perhaps even more necessary, is it that the mind be cleansed and purified. All impurity causes diseases as well as irregularity in the working of the physical system. The same applies to the mind. There are impurities belonging to the mind, which may cause different diseases, and by cleansing the mind one helps to create health both in body and mind. By health I mean the natural condition. And what is spirituality but to be natural? [Inayat Khan, Vol. IV, Mental Purification and Healing, Pt. III: Mental Purification, Ch. I].
A spiritual fast can provide an emotional renewal. We often find ourselves immersed in business, academic or social activities that overwhelm us. We feel “fed up,” “can’t take anymore,” “sick and tired of it all.”
And now you know not that you have done anything amiss! You can eat and drink and be merry! You are everyday engaged with variety of company, and frequent the coffee-houses! Alas, my brother, what is this? How are you above measure hardened by the deceitfulness of sin! … O, how have you grieved the Spirit of God! Return to him with weeping, fasting, and mourning. [Collected Works of John Wesley, Vol. 02, p.94]
Keeping stressful spiritual pollutants from staining our sanctity is another form of purification. A reclusive retreat, for example, may provide isolation and offer refuge from debilitating influences by revitalizing our mind and renewing soul. The spiritual fast complements this form of catharsis.
… the purpose of the desire for outward retreat is to realise inward retreat, through which one can realize the benefit – the prophetic encounter — or something similar to it … The intimate ones – the prophets, their disciples, and the chasidim – would practice retreat in the Temple which contains the burnt offering altar and the incense altar … [R. Avraham ben HaRambam, quoted in Jewish Contemplatives].
Our journey toward the Divine Reality must be with a pure heart. Fasting provides a reliable vehicle for such purification.
The purification process starts on a physical plain and continues through our emotions toward the heart. While therapeutic fasting purges the body and stimulates evacuation of the bowels, the spiritual fast is a laxative for the soul, inducing vomiting by the mind and providing an enema for the heart.
Be well assured that none can be illuminated, unless he be first cleansed, purified, or stripped. Also none can be united to God unless he be first illuminated. There are therefore three stages—first, the purification; secondly, the illumination; and thirdly, the union. [Theologia Germanica].
Many of our debilitating conditions start with perverted thinking and distorted emotions. The deviation that originates in our mind soon permeates our entire soul, leaving us in a state of overwhelming anxiety and grief.
The pure heart is the best mirror for the reflection of Truth. So all these disciplines are for the purification of the heart. As soon as it is pure, all truths flash upon it in a minute. [Sri Sathya Sai Baba].
Negative thoughts, emotions and desires have to be filtered, discarded or corrected. We must be freed from pride, lust, envy and other vices that stain our soul, to be replaced with Divine virtues.
At such times, we may need psychological and intellectual cleansing. Our perspective may have become clouded and we may have forgotten our most sacred beliefs.
Fasting relies on self-control which has recourse to the will and leads to the purification of mind and heart. St. Athanasius states: “Do you want to know what fasting does? … it raises the mind and purifies the heart.” [Synod of Bishops, XI Ordinary General Assembly].
We are usually healthier after fasting. We have relaxed the weight and burdens of immoderate consumption and digestion of food. Our body usually responds by being ready to face new challenges.
Spiritually, we feel an enhanced awareness of the sacred. The repentance and remorse that accompany our fasting act as an emotional release. Our conscience feels relieved after expressing heartfelt contrition and removing some of the stains from our soul.
We must not be astonished to see ourselves imperfect, since we must never see ourselves otherwise in this life. [St Francis de Sales].
After the fast, we often experience a feeling of self-assurance, renewed vitality and resoluteness. We have exerted a significant effort by fasting to please God. We completed what, before the fast, appeared a daunting task. We have revived our spiritual strength and our direction appears clearer.
We sense that a spiritual obligation has been fulfilled. With bolstered confidence and enhanced piety, we are ready for selfless service to our Creator.
Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God! Truly he succeeds that purifies it, And he fails that corrupts it! [Quran 91: 7-10].