Fasting to Obey God, for God-consciousness and Seclusion
Turn, then, away from them, and thou shalt incur no blame; yet go on reminding [all who would listen]: for, verily, such a reminder will profit the believers. And [tell them that] I have not created the invisible beings and humans to any end other than that they may [know and] worship Me. [Quran 51:54-6].
The primary objective of abstinence is awareness and recognition of the Divine Reality. This inner consciousness and our willingness to conform our existence to God’s will and plan are the essential reasons for all spiritual exercises, and the deepest meaning of what we call “worship.”
Fasting as a religious act increases our sensitivity to that mystery always and everywhere present to us. It is an invitation to awareness, a call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, and a song of joy. It is a discipline of self-restraint, a ritual of purification, and a sanctuary for offerings of atonement. It is a wellspring for the spiritually dry, a compass for the spiritually lost, and inner nourishment for the spiritually hungry. [Fr. Thomas Ryan].
When we read Scripture, we may read a passage ten times and find a deeper meaning each time. So it is with fasting. As we grow in piety, wisdom and God-consciousness, each fast takes us into deeper understanding.
Fasting kills the desire of the self and the appetite of greed, and from it comes purity of the heart, purification of the limbs, cultivation of the inner and the outer being, thankfulness for blessings, charity to the poor, increase of humble supplication, humility, weeping and most of the ways of seeking refuge in God; and it is the reason for the breaking of aspiration, the lightening of evil things, and the redoubling of good deeds. It contains benefits which cannot be counted. It is enough that we mention some of them to the person who understands and is given success in making use of fasting, if God wills. [Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq, The Lantern of the Path, Fasting].
1. Scriptural Command to Fast
The Scriptures of Hindus (Mahabharata), Jews (Torah), Christians (Gospels) and Muslims (Qur’an) all prescribe fasting as a religious practice. Buddhists follow the “middle way”, a path between extreme abstinence and depraved gluttony. (cf. Dhammapada). The Buddhist fast is best described as restrained eating.
The man who teaches another the merit of fasts has never to suffer any kind of misery. The ordinances about fasts, in their due order, O son of Kunti, have flowed from the great Rishi Angiras. The man who daily reads these ordinances or hears them read, becomes freed from sins of every kind. Not only is such a person freed from every calamity, but his mind becomes incapable of being touched by any kind of fault. Such a person succeeds in understanding the sounds of all creatures other than human, and acquiring eternal fame, become foremost of his species. [Mahabharata, Book 13, Section CVI].
The LORD said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD . . . This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. [Leviticus 23:26-32 (NIV)].
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; even in the [supernal] pleasures [of the devas], he finds no satisfaction; the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires [The Dhammapada, Chapter 14:186].
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. [Matthew 9:15 NIV)].
. . . when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. [Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)].
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].
2. God-consciousness & Piety
Perhaps the most esoteric and wondrous purpose for fasting is to come nearer to God.
Fasting enhances the solemnity and sacredness of our thoughts, and encourages an attitude of piety and God-consciousness.
This means that when deprived of food for some time our mind gravitates toward fulfilling needs beyond those of the body.
. . . Fasting is useful as atoning for and preventing sin, and as raising the mind to spiritual things. And everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica].
Though our stomachs and bank accounts may be full, we can still experience insatiable spiritual appetites that cannot be quenched by transient pleasures or possessions.
Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven . . . And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things. [St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises].
Something in the process of spiritual fasting elevates our consciousness, carrying us into closer relationship with the Divine Reality, and providing an extraordinarily satisfying encounter with God.
The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return.… The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. [Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration].
Fasting also leads our thoughts from literal legalism to heightened spiritual consciousness. A fast can, thereby, open the mind to a panorama of mystical reflection which secular cognition neither contemplates nor appreciates.
The purpose of such abstinence for a longer or shorter period of time is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world of material things and our surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things. [Ole Hallesby]
The quality of our life depends on the quality of our thoughts. In a fasting mode, our mind becomes introspective. It opens our consciousness to a different frequency, to a different way of listening and understanding
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].
3. Spiritual Silence and Seclusion
The experiences of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, of Moses on Mount Horeb, of Jesus in the desert and of Muhammad (pbuh) in the cave of Mount Hira, all share the common theme of seclusion and abstinence. The practice of fasting and temporarily withdrawing from worldly activities remains a common element of the world’s great religions.
There are two kinds of seclusion: firstly, the seclusion of the aspirants (muridun)
, which consists of not associating physically with others; and secondly, the seclusion of the verifiers (muhaqqiqun), which consists of having no contact with created things in one’s heart: their hearts have no room for anything other than the knowledge of God, exalted is He, which is the witness of the Truth in the heart that results from contemplation. [Muhyiddin Ibn ʻArabi, The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation, p. 34].
At times, we need to remove ourselves from social distraction and temptations to regain our equilibrium. Fasting provides seclusion even when we are surrounded by a maddening world of intrusions. When we fast, we augment spiritual silence, disregard social conventions and escape from cultural contrivances.
When we undertake a spiritual fast, we choose to withdraw from several aspects of our social existence, including merriment, frivolity and material comforts. Fasting is incompatible with partying, festivities and joyous occasions.
Most religions forbid their adherents from fasting on festive days because abstinence produces a solemn, unsocial state of mind.
Catholic theologians determined that fasting during Easter and on Sunday is not consistent with the spiritual and mental states desirable on such days.
Accordingly the fasts appointed by the commandment of the Church are rather “fasts of sorrow” which are inconsistent with days of joy. For this reason fasting is not ordered by the Church during the whole of the Paschal season, nor on Sundays: and if anyone were to fast at these times in contradiction to the custom of Christian people . . . he would not be free from sin . . . [St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, 2a, 2ae, 147].
Similarly, Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, forbade fasting on its two days of feasting and celebration.
Narrated Abu Sa’id: The Prophet forbade the fasting of ‘Id-ul-Fitr and ‘Id-ul-Adha (Islam’s two feast days). [Bukhari, Vol. 3, Bk. 31: 212].
By contrast, serious reflection prefers the solitude that fasting promotes. By fasting, we seek a connection to the Divine. We temporarily renounce the material world and avoid transient pleasures.
We set out on a personal exodus, a solitary “hijrah,” a temporary retreat from the secular to the sacred.
Solitude is central precisely because it breaks us free of the world in which we’re used to exercising power or having power exercised over us. Solitude and silence together, when adequately practiced, form a framework within which we can absolutely and constantly be aware of the movement of God in us, and know it is not us. This is why the disciplines are so essential, because they break away that competing world that we have identified with. We are often just puppets of our own egotism and that of others. [Dallas Willard, interviewed by Luci Shaw].