Fasting to Overcome Habits, for Solitude and to Chastise the Body
Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don’t get jealous of him. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eye, your ear, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body. [St. John Chrysostom, On Fasting].
16. Overcome Habits, Addiction, Gluttony
Fasting breaks the monotonous reenactment of habitual rituals to which we may be physically and intellectually shackled. A break in our eating patterns can lead to significant lifestyle changes.
Habituation refers to weakened responses to continually repeated stimuli. Consciously and unconsciously, we become addicted to many activities, routines and habits that we perform like robots, having long forgotten their origins or purpose.
Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking. Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth. 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, Prayer, p. 59].
When our bodies demand the chemicals, or our minds insist on the customary cravings, we must begin by recognizing the lamentable state to which we have descended. To reestablish control and confidence, we must first abstain, even if for just one day.
Fasting can be a painful admission that I am not free, that my life is enslaved, obsessed or addicted to external things such as food, drink, codependent relationships, sex, television, privacy and the like. [Albert Haase].
Lent prepares us for this most important moment; therefore, it is a “powerful” season, a turning point that can foster change and conversion in each of us. We all need to improve, to change for the better. Lent helps us and thus we leave behind old habits and the lazy addiction to the evil that deceives and ensnares us. [Pope Francis]
17. Separation, Solitude and Sanctity
Anything that is holy must be isolated away from pollution, and elevated above corruption. Under some circumstance, the only protection against spiritual contamination is self-imposed quarantine.
The Children of Israel were separated and made distinct from all the idolatrous nations surrounding them. Their spiritual and ritual purity was dependent on abstention and sacred restrictions: the “613 commandments.”
When some of these pious men occasionally went to an extreme by fasting, staying up all night, refraining from eating meat and drinking wine, abstaining from marital relations, wearing woolen and hairy garments, dwelling in the mountains, and secluding themselves in the wilderness, they did so only to counter the opposite urge and restore the health of their souls… Fearing that their own morals might be tainted by those around them, they removed themselves from bad people, as the prophet Yirmiyah said, “Oh, to leave my people, to go away from them. For they are all adulterers, a band of rogues.” [Moses Maimonides, The Essential Maimonides: Translations of the Rambam, p. 183]
When we undertake a spiritual fast, we choose to withdraw from several aspects of our social existence, including merriment, frivolity and material comforts.
I think the idea of fasting until sundown would be very practical in solitude. This would be practical too if some meal were taken before sunrise. It is unfortunate that fasting has become less and less practiced among Christians of the West, though the Orthodox are still very strict. [Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters, December 9, 1964]
Most religions forbid their adherents from fasting on festive days because abstinence produces a solemn, unsocial state of mind. Fasting is incompatible with festivities and joyous occasions. By contrast, serious reflection prefers the solitude that fasting promotes.
Catholic theologians determined that fasting during Easter and on Sunday is not compatible 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].
In Islam, Prophet Muhammad forbade the fasting on its two feast days.
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 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, Dallas Willard is interviewed by Luci Shaw].
18. Chastise the Body, Mortify the Flesh
You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires. [Galatians 5: 24].
Fasting, self-denial and abstinence are essential spiritual exercises in the gymnasium of the ascetic. In our effort to please God, we enter into a struggle against our animal nature. The goal is to subordinate our lower appetites and achieve complete submission to the will of God.
The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature … This exercise of bodily mortification-far removed from any form of stoicism does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the “liberation” of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through “corporal fasting” man regains strength and the “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence. [Pope Paul VI, On Fast and Abstinence, Ch. II].
Fasting offers simulated affliction. It is a controlled sacrifice highly valued in the spiritual realm, a stressful exercise for the soul. It imitates the process of the real-world anxiety and grief.
Though it may only be a simulated adversity, this “artificial” state of need, produces a spiritual crisis that cries out for God’s help.
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].
By discarding the stained garments of the soul, we dress it in new garments of righteousness and purity.
. . . John the Baptist was the great preacher of repentance, and his “raiment of camel’s hair,” his “girdle about his loins,” his meat of “locusts and wild honey,” tell of an inner man mortifying his flesh in the deepest humiliation of penitential sorrow. [Rev. T. T. Carter, The Life of Penitence].
Fasting tries to transform mere thoughts and words into action. Denial of the body becomes a testament to earnestness, a witness to sincerity. God does not need this, but we do.
The seventh sign of the learned man of the next world is that his main object of anxeity is to learn secret knowledge, observation of the heart, knowledge of the paths of the hereafter, to travel thereon and to have abiding faith in finding self-mortification and observation, because self mortification leads to “mushahadah” or contemplation and lets flow the fountain of wisdom through the intricate details of the science of heart. Reading of books and learning of sciences are not sufficient for it. But this wisdom appears as result of hard labour. It opens if one sits in loneliness with God with a mind turned with humility of spirit towards God and through self-mortification, observation and watching. This is the key of “ilham” or inspiration and the fountain head of “kashf” or secret knowledge. [Imam Al-Ghazzali, Revival of Religious Learnings, Ch. 1:5].
At such times, we willingly punish ourselves for transgressing God’s commands and abusing the blessings bestowed upon us. A penitential fast thus manifests to the Creator our regret and contrition. By chastising our body, we offer a token gesture of reconciliation to restore the damaged relationship.
Let them, therefore, with fasting and with prayer make their adjurations, and not with the elegant and well-arranged and fitly-ordered words of learning, but as men who have received the gift of healing from God, confidently, to the glory of God. By your fastings and prayers and perpetual watching, together with your other good works, mortify the works of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit [Pope Clement I, Two Epistles on Virginity, Ch. XII].