Fasting, Asceticism & God-consciousness

Fasting and Spiritual Discipline

Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. [The Rule of St. Benedict, The Instruments of Good Works, Ch. 4].

Every major religion has a small segment of adherents who choose to live a life of austere self-deprivation and asceticism to attain spiritual fulfillment. They pursue a path vastly different from the majority of believers. Preferring withdrawal from the world and abstinence, they attempt to vitalize an inherent but dormant spiritual element of human nature.

How can your patience be rewarded if no adversity test it? How can you be a friend of Christ if you are not willing to suffer any hardship? [Thomas `a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Bk. 2 Ch. 1].

Aspects of Asceticism

Generally, asceticism refers to spiritual exercises such as dietary restriction, solitude and some elements of physical discipline. We use several labels to categorize the asceticism of pious men and women seeking purification of their soul and greater God-consciousness.  Often, we associate ascetics with renunciation of the world, mortification of the flesh and extreme self-abnegation.

How many spiritual disciplines are there? As many as we can think of. Certain practices are basic, such as solitude, servanthood, confession, and meditation on Scripture… But we can turn almost any activity into a “training exercise” for spiritual life. [John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People].

Definitions and descriptions often fail to encompass fully all aspects of  asceticism. Ascetic practices can be divided into those involving self-control through abstinence (e.g., celibacy, fasting) and those requiring disciplined action (e.g., meditation, charity).

Disciplines of engagement involve my intentionally doing certain things. Worship, study, fellowship, and giving are all disciplines of engagement. By contrast, disciplines of abstinence involve my intentionally refraining from doing things. These include practices such fasting, solitude, and silence. [John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People].

At times, asceticism focuses on penance and atonement. In other settings, the search for spiritual clarity is paramount. Sometimes, the sole consideration is subjugation of the flesh, an exertion of willpower over carnal desires. Whatever the impetus, the underlying motivation for spiritual asceticism is to enhance consciousness of the Divine Reality.

Do men imagine that they will be left (at ease) because they say, We believe, and will not be tested with affliction? Lo! We tested those who were before you. Thus Allah [God] knoweth those who are sincere, and knoweth those who feign. [Quran 29:2-3].

Secular Ascetics

To some extent, we all share this desire to free the soul from bondage to the body, though we would not call it asceticism. Mental fitness, therapeutic diets and many forms of motivational self-help programs demand discipline and willpower.

We are all ascetics engaging in efforts of self-improvement. The main difference is that we usually don’t engage in severe devotional exercises to attain higher spiritual consciousness.

The pious ascetic life is dedicated to attaining Divine awareness by suffering physical austerities. By contrast, we usually have worldly motives behind our willingness to suffer discomfort, exert our willpower or voluntarily practice austerities.

Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. [The Book of Mormon, Helaman 3:35].

Overindulging in Abstinence

Fasting can become a regular mode of eating. To eat one meal a day is not extraordinary for many people. Are they fasting?

Similarly, to go without eating meat for forty days is considered pious by many, while a vegetarian may wonder why we don’t abstain from meat all the time.

Some of you can sustain life with less food than others can, and therefore I desire that he who needs more nourishment shall not be obliged to equal others, but that everyone shall give his body what it needs for being an efficient servant of the soul. For as we are obliged to be on our guard against superfluous food which injures body and soul alike, thus we must be on the watch against immoderate fasting, and this the more, because the Lord wants conversion and not victims. [Francis of Assisi].

Some of us consider putting simple restrictions on our normal diet to be a fast. To others, only completely abstain from all foods is fasting. Some would consider a therapeutic diet to be a form of asceticism. Others require the extension of discipline to include, besides food, restrictions on many other “worldly” pleasures.

Possibly a person may say: “Since envy, cupidity and ambition are evil qualities to cultivate and lead to a man’s ruin, I will avoid them to the uttermost, and seek their contraries.” A person following this principle, will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor marry nor dwell in a decent home, nor wear comely apparel, but will clothe himself in sackcloth and coarse wool like the idolaters’ priests. This too, is the wrong way, not to be followed. Whoever persists in such a course is termed a sinner. [Moses Maimonides].

If we think of fasting as a spiritual exercise, we may compare it to running. A casual jogger feels his run of twenty minutes in the park is quite therapeutic, though to a marathoner it would barely be a warm-up.

Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: Allah’s Apostle was informed that I had taken an oath to fast daily and to pray (every night) all the night throughout my life … The Prophet said, “You cannot do that. So, fast for few days and give it up for few days, pray and sleep. Fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times and that will be equal to one year of fasting.” I replied, “I can do better than that.” The Prophet said to me, “Fast one day and give up fasting for a day and that is the fasting of Prophet David and that is the best fasting.” I said, “I have the power to fast better (more) than that.” The Prophet said, “There is no better fasting than that.” [Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 3: 31, Number 197].

Fasting and Abnegation

In the context of fasting, abnegation suggests restrictions on the measure, quality and type of food one consumes, even when not fasting. In other words, it is a continual negation of the palate, the stomach and the body.

In his book, To Love Fasting, the late Benedictine monk, Adalbert de Vogüé, noted the need to make a clear distinction between fasting and abnegation. He personally found that daily “regular” fasting was quite easy and pleasant. He fasted every day, and enthusiastically recommended a regimen of long periods between meals.

However, in pleading his case for fasting to fellow monks, he observed that the failures of some experiments in the history of monastic fasting were due to the imposition of additional dietary restrictions on an already meager fare.

Early Christian monks not only fasted for long periods, but also restricted their diet to bread, water and a few meager morsels. This meant that they not only fasted often, but also abjured meat, fruits, and other nourishment. They depleted their bodies of all energy, often becoming incapable of accomplishing necessary tasks, including simple acts of worship.

Many monks not only fasted for long periods, but sought continually to punish the flesh by eating a very limited diet. Adalbert de Vogüé concluded that one can fast regularly but should break the fast and be fully satiated.

But on the whole, the dominant impression has not been that of a painful tension. On the contrary, I have lived the discovery of the fast as a joyful liberation … The regular fast, becoming a weekday exercise all year, is for me less an effort than a very agreeable way of life. I practice it with pleasure so appreciating its advantages that I regret its interruptions. [Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: the Monastic Experience, p. 116].

God-consciousness & the Soul

To fast and additionally to place other torturous restrictions on the body can become an unbearable, purposeless endeavor. It is important to distinguish between devotional fasting and extreme restrictions that lead to undesirable health consequences and self-centered glorification.

We must always to remember that the ultimate purpose of spiritual asceticism is God-consciousness.

O Lord, let that which seems naturally impossible to me become possible through Your grace. You know that I can suffer very little, and that I am quickly discouraged when any small adversity arises. Let the torment of tribulation suffered for Your name be pleasant and desirable to me, since to suffer and be troubled for Your sake is very beneficial for my soul. [Thomas `a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 19].

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