Fasting as a Catharsis, for Vows, and for Ritual Purification
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, i].
13. Purgation, Catharsis and Emotional Release
The word catharsis describes a purging that heals and restores the soul. It is derived from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure.” Medically, a catharsis is a purgation, especially for the digestive system. It also refers to relieving tensions and anxieties by consciously confronting repressed feelings and fears.
“Prove me, O Lord, and try me.” [Psalm 26:2]. Lest, however, any of my secret sins should be hid from me, prove me, O Lord, and try me, making me known, not to You from whom nothing is hid, but to myself, and to men. Burn my reins and my heart. Apply a remedial purgation, as it were fire, to my pleasures and thoughts. [St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 26, p. 120]
Spiritually, a catharsis is an emptying of negative emotions to cleanses away guilt, to purify ourselves and to reunite us with the Divine. A spiritual catharsis can be an emotional release, particularly when we need psychological and intellectual cleansing.
Fasting is dependent on the ‘law of catharsis’ (Virechan Siddhanta). We take purgatives (catharsis) to purge our body of its toxins and fall-out impact of indiscreet and imprudent eating. But fasting also purges difilements from our mind. [Shiv Sharma, Brilliance of Hinduism, p. 123].
Keeping stressful spiritual pollutant from staining our sanctity is a form of catharsis. A reclusive retreat that includes fasting can provide isolation and offers protection from debilitating influences.
Acts of denial and simplification are traditionally called acts of purgation. These acts shape bodily desire through the denial or restriction of human actions. For example, the three most common, traditional acts of purgation are fasting, sexual renunciation, and bodily mortification….As the word purgation suggests, instead of simplification of life in order to enable response, what stands at the center of the spiritual disciplines as a whole is a world-denying asceticism. The duties and actions that come to mark and deepen the religious life are then prayer, meditation, contemplation, confession, and purgation. [Timothy F. Sedgwick, The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety, pp. 110, 132].
Fasting can also be a communal response to a calamity. We just do not feel very hungry after an occurrence of widespread destruction or distress. At such times, we discard transitory pleasures for sober introspection and self-analysis.
Fasting is consistent with such a traumatic state. The penitential fast offers an acceptable catharsis, expressing remorse for any personal culpability associated with the disaster. By acknowledging indirect complicity, we assuage our guilt and manifest true contrition by turning to God for mercy
Then the Israelites drew near to Benjamin the second day. This time, when the Benjamites came out from Gibeah to oppose them, they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords. Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. [Judges 20:24-26(NIV)].
14. Oaths and Vows
Fasting normally begins with an oath or vow, either directly or indirectly expressed. We must first form an intention to shun food and drink. We then becomes spiritually bound to hold fast to this vow or promise to God. For example, in the Bible, Saul commands his soldiers not to eat during a day of fighting.
Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food. [1 Samuel 14:24-44].
Similarly, enemies of Paul bound themselves, under a “curse oath” (anathematizo), to fast until they had slain him.
The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. [Acts 23:12].
The monastic experience, particularly in Christianity, often requires vows that, to some extent, amplify fasting into a way of life. Moreover, the celibate soon finds that fasting is the best remedy for curing lusty desires. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “the ardor of lust is dampened by abstinence from food and drink.”
O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge myself to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. Not to kill. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honor all persons. Not to do to another what I would not wish done to myself. To chastise the body. Not to seek after pleasures. To love fasting. [Saint Benedict].
Fasting can represent attainment of spiritual merit and, as such, can be offered in exchange for satisfaction of a vow. In Islam, for example, the expiation of a vow may be accomplished by fasting three days:
Thus, the breaking of an oath must be atoned for by feeding ten needy persons with more or less the same food as you are wont to give to your own families, or by clothing them, or by freeing a human being from bondage; and he who has not the wherewithal shall fast for three days [instead]. This shall be the atonement for your oaths whenever you have sworn [and broken them]. But be mindful of your oaths! [Quran 5:89].
15. Spiritual and Ritual Purification
Purity has got Four Stages: The first stage is the purification of the external organs from excrements and filths. The second stage is the purification of the bodily organs from sins and faults. The third stage is the purification of the heart from evil traits and evil vices. The fourth stage is the purifications of the inner self from everything except God. This is the stage of the Prophets and the saints. [Imam Ghazzali, Ihyaul Ulum (Revival of Religious Learning), Ch. 3:The Mysteries of Cleanliness].
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].
We overcome ourselves when we fast. Without this desire to go beyond ourselves, to reach for something beyond the ordinary, we would remain stuck in the realm of banality, never understanding beauty, wisdom, and the purity of things. We may have enough to live on, but much too little to live for. “The purification of the heart through fasting” is therefore seen as an important aspect of the quest for the meaning of life. It helps us to grasp something of our origin, which is greater than ourselves. [Peter Seewald, Wisdom from the Monastery: A Program of Spiritual Healing].
We must approach the Divine Presence in a pure state. Religious ceremonies and sacraments demand external and internal purity. The expiatory and purgative properties of fasting make it the consummate practice for such purification. .
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].
Rites of purification use fasting to hold apart or separate a person for the purpose of spiritual cleansing. For example, Soto was the Isle of Penitence, where the Incas retreated for fasting and reflection. [J. Myres, R. Paredes, Pukara Influence on Isla Soto, Lake Titicaca, Peru]. Fasting prepares both the candidate and the officiator for important sacraments.
Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. [Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)].
In Chinese, zhia or zia means “fasting” and also refers to the preparatory measures prior to a religious ceremony to ensure ritual purity. The Zhai Gong, or Fasting Palace, was where a Chinese emperor fasted for three days before being allowed to worship. In addition to fasting, he abstained from recreation, women, and handling of criminal cases.
The Sanskrit word for fasting, upvas, literally means sitting near or close to God. This represents a purified and elevated condition which allows connection to the Absolute.
Laity who receive and observe the vows known as the Lay Bodhisattva Precepts stop eating at noon on six days of each month . . . The fasting observance is related to several liturgical practices observed on the six fasting days: they recite their precept codes, recite scriptures and increase their hours of meditation on those days. [Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D., On Fasting From a Buddhist’s Perspective].
… we ought not to be conquered by any lusts nor held in possession by any vices in order that the habitation of Divine power may be stained with no pollution. And this assuredly it is possible for all to obtain, God helping and guiding us, if by the purification of fasting and by merciful liberality, we take pains to be set free from the filth of sins, and to be rich in the fruits of love. [Pope Leo, Sermon 78]