Fasting: Testing Our Personal Best
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].
When asked about their personal best, athletes and entertainers can easily recall their greatest performances. Their best days are permanently etched in their memory and vividly recalled into old age.
When fasting for God, we do not fast to achieve fame or worldly distinction, nor to qualify ourselves for inclusion in Guinness’ Book of Records. As an act of worship, fasting is not meant to achieve notoriety or attract attention. The state of mind must be devoutly focused and spiritually pure.
An old man was asked, “How can I find God?” He said, “In fasting, in watching, in labours, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: charity and humility” [Apophthegmata Patrum].
When we read about the benefits of fasting, we may indiscriminately lump spiritual fasting with the pervasive health food fads surrounding us. We may start thinking of fasting as a self-help gimmick that offers a fashionable makeover. Fasting then becomes part of a fantasy world composed by marketers and media script writers.
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].
Fasting can generate a type of self-deception that produces illusions of purity and sanctify. By fasting, we may believe that we are elevating ourselves above the average believer and far above the sinner. This arrogance originating in fasting can contribute to world-class spiritual narcissism.
Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). It is a subtle way of seeking one’s “own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21). It takes on many forms, depending on the kinds of persons and groups into which it seeps… In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of self-help and self-realization. [Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 93; 95].
Intention, Intention, Intention
Forming the proper intention to fast is essential. A forced or unintended abstinence from food does not constitute a spiritual fast. Occasionally, we may be so preoccupation with work that we neglect to eat lunch. Our work so holds our attention that we go all day without eating without realizing it. We have not fasted, merely forgotten to eat.
Traditionally, our legal system required that a criminal act be accompanied by a mental awareness of its criminality. Mens rea is the Latin term for “guilty mind.” It supports the notion that “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty.” Thus, the intention is usually overriding – for someone to commit a crime, he must have intended to do so.
Fasting can produce an “I belong in the front row” mentality that infiltrates our sincerity and infects our character with conceit, haughtiness and self-importance.Though we acknowledge the supremacy of God in our lives, we are often ungrateful, and think ourselves to be self-sufficient. We celebrate our inconsequential efforts and exalt with presumptuous vanity in our trivial accomplishments.
This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many righteous deeds he performs, to feel that he has done nothing, and in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.” [St. Macarius the Great].
Our Personal Best
How is our modern civilization motivated? What moves it? At times, our world seems to be controlled by a multi-cultural phenomenon whose leaders rival each other in corruption and depravity.
Seemingly, money and sex are the motivating forces. Greed, pride, and lust are paramount. People are controlled by them, prodded to work, conditioned to consume. The economic cycle is based on stimulating the carnal instincts of the individual.
A saint doesn’t try to grab worth through an endless race of achievement, but just receives worth by grace. A saint does not choose as an ultimate value self-fulfillment, but self-giving love. A saint does not seek glory, but gives glory to a glorious God. A saint does not impose her will on an unfeeling, impersonal world; a saint surrenders her will to a loving, good God. [John Ortberg, “Humility”].
Morals and ethics are manipulated while depravity and disbelief are promoted. Every month a new scandal arises somewhere in the world involving high-profile personalities, politicians, entertainers, academics, clerics.
Who can see the Divine Reality clearly enough to pursue it amid the distractions of daily existence? They are entertaining, immediately present before us, so easy to pursue. They are enticing, alluring, more visible than the glimpses of Divine reality and promises of a future paradise. It is a rare individual who can ignore the incessant calls of society, family and personal material desires.
Abu Huraira reported that Allah’s Messenger ((صلى الله عليه و سلم) ) said: “Who amongst you is fasting today? Abu Bakr said: I am. He (again) asked: Who amongst you followed a funeral procession today? Abu Bakr said: I did. He (the Prophet) again asked: Who amongst you served food to the needy? Abu Bakr said: I did. He (again) asked: Who amongst you has today visited the sick? Abu Bakr said: I did. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger ((صلى الله عليه و سلم) ) said: Anyone in whom (these good deeds) are combined will certainly enter paradise.” [Sahih Muslim]
Fasting for God
The most exalted purpose for fasting is to approach God. This implies that there is something in the act of fasting that elevates us, bringing us into closer relationship with the Divine Presence. Such a fast aspires to a rapturous awareness, an ecstatic encounter with God.
With God at the center of reality, what can human praise and admiration ultimately offer? These impermanent accolades of other human beings are themselves illusions of the mind. Yet, they remain goals of many.
Not so the rewards from God: everlasting, offering true satisfaction, concluding with the ultimate pleasure. The choice is apparently so obvious. Why would anyone seek other than a Divine Reality?
As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul. Imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life. [St. John Chrysostom].
By sublimation of our thoughts to appreciate and glorify the Divine Presence, we discard the crude elements in our human desires. Our perception of reality then becomes refined. Our temporal existence becomes unsatisfying, even oppressive, while the Divine Reality assumes unique urgency.
Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try you– which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Forgiving, [Quran 67:1-2].