Fasting and Long Life
Restricting an animal’s calorie intake is the most famous intervention known to extend life span. Discovered more than 70 years ago, it is still the only one absolutely proven to work. Most diseases, including cancer, diabetes and even neurodegenerative illnesses, are forestalled. The organism seems to be supercharged for survival. [David A. Sinclair and Lenny Guarente, Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes].
Aging is a natural process that becomes more difficult when we remove Divine Reality from our thoughts. Without a purpose or an ultimate end, physical aging can add depression and despair to a process with its own inherent pain and anxieties.
To a significant degree, longevity depends on our psychological and spiritual health to provide relief from the inherent stressors of aging. Studies have consistently shown that no direct relationship exists between the extent of physical brain deterioration and the manifestation of symptoms of age-related illness such as Alzheimer’s disease.
As our body withers, we are still left with ample mental and spiritual reserves to carry on the battles of existence. Certain conditions inhibit cognitive dysfunction, while others advance it. This simply means that there is more to dementia that just physical withering of the brain. Even when our intellect fails, we are still left with a spiritual reality in which to abide.
The abbot Daniel used to say, “Even as the body flourishes, so does the soul become withered: and when the body is withered, then does the soul put forth leaves.” [Sayings of the Desert Fathers].
It is scientifically accepted that restricted calorie intake can increase life span. One theory advanced by science is that oxidation, our internal process that reduces food to energy, is a main cause of aging.
Because caloric restriction can markedly prolong the life span, it is being widely studied to determine the mechanisms of aging. An increasing body of evidence suggests that cumulative oxidative damage to macromolecules such as protein, lipids, and DNA has a major role in aging. Caloric restriction attenuates both the degree of oxidative damage and the associated decline in function. We will review evidence that caloric restriction prolongs life in laboratory animals, evokes an array of responses, including a decrease in oxidative stress and damage, and may retard the aging process in humans. [Richard Weindruch, Ph.D. and Rajindar S. Sohal, Ph.D., Caloric Intake and Aging, New England Journal of Medicine. 1997 Oct 2; 337 (14): 986–994]
According to this theory, our life span is an inverse function of our metabolic rate and is proportional to oxygen consumption. In other words, the very essence of physical existence has a built-in decaying process. This leads to the conclusion that the less we eat, the longer we live.
Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have observed that mice that fasted every other day, then ate what they wanted on the intervening days, displayed greater resistance to diabetes. They were also resistant to a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease. [See: The Amazing Aging Mind].
In order to preserve the mind and body in a perfect condition, abstinence from food is not alone sufficient: unless the other virtues of the mind as well are joined to it . . . And so humility must first be learned . . . anger should be controlled . . . vainglory should be despised, the disdainfulness of pride trampled under foot, and the shifting and wandering thoughts of the mind restrained by continual recollection of God. [John Cassian, The Training of a Monk and the Eight Deadly Sins, Of the Spirit of Gluttony, (The Book of Fasts and Abstinence) Chapter X].
Cleansing the Mind
Fasting and monasticism have often joined forces during periods of social degeneration and depravity. The need for protection against secular depravity, excessive affluence and dogmatic ritualism often prompts the forming of communities where faith can be cultivated without distractions, oppression and persecution.
The Jewish Therapeutae and Essenes, and many early Christian Desert Fathers separated themselves into congregations dedicated to spiritual life. In Islam, celibacy and extreme excessive austerities are not permissible. Thus, fasting, contemplation and worldly renunciation [Zuhd] for meditative reflection upon Allah becomes even more prominent.
Fasting causes the mind to be cleansed constantly. It whithers up every evil thought and brings healthy, godly thoughts — holy thoughts that enlighten the mind and kindle it with more zeal and spiritual fervor [Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Mount Athos, “Counsels from the Holy Mountain“].
Monks cultivated piety by engaging in fasting, self-discipline and renunciation. They sought to free the spirit from the body’s claim and to attain an elevated consciousness that enhanced equanimity and sanctity.
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself. [St. Augustine, “On Prayer and Fasting” quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas].
Monks and Long Life
It is said that the doctor should live longer than the patient. If monks are considered the doctors of the early Christian church, they did, in fact, score pretty well.
Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? [Job 12:12 NIV].
Records show that some monks lived very long lives. Many monks lived to be twice the age of their contemporaries. Even by today’s standards, it is somewhat remarkable to see someone living to 100 years.
The first monk, … we know of to decide to run away to the desert and lead a life of contemplation is Saint Anthony of Egypt … He lived from 251 to 356. I have trouble believing this. The sources are pretty good. I have trouble believing that anybody could live to be 105 in the Roman Empire. Or indeed, at any time before ten years ago or so. But there it is. [Professor Paul Freedman, Yale University].
Aging and faith can intertwine to weave lifestyles that promote longevity. Though not totally reliable, historical records show that long life was one of the distinguishing features of early monasticism. Below is a list of monks who, according to tradition, lived to a ripe old age:
Symeon the Stylite – 103 yrs
Saint Cyril the Anchorite – 108 yrs.
Alypius the Stylite – 118 yrs.
John the Silent – 104 yrs.
Anthony the Great – 105 yrs.
Theodosius the Great ― 105 yrs.
Paul of Thebes – 113 yrs.
Paul of Komel – 112 yrs.
Macarius of Alexandria – 100 yrs.
Cyril Belozersky – 90 yrs.
Macarius Zheltovodsky – 95 yrs.
(Fast) a certain number of days . . . and that ye fast is better for you if ye did but know. [Quran 2:184].