Fasting Amid Affluence
In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times. In fact, fasting has been in general disrepute both in and outside the Church for many years. [Richard J. Foster, The Celebration of Discipline, p. 47].
The purpose of spiritual fasting is to elevate our sanctity by becoming more conscious of the Divine and increasing our pious actions. Fasting should interrupt the routines, habits and addictions that dominate our thoughts and distract us from remembering God.
A fast, separate and alone, during which we merely abstaining from food, is good. However, a fast combined with devotions, supplications and worship offers far greater rewards.
You should know that in Ramadan the believer combines two actions by which he struggles against himself: during the daytime by fasting, and during the nighttime by night prayer. Whoever combines these two forms of struggle receives his reward without any account. [Al-Hafidh ibn Rajab].
Fasting in Affluence
Modern-day fasting is not as rigorous as the fasting practiced by past generations. The affluence and comforts of modern society greatly diminish our resolve to bear hardships, at least for sacred purposes.
The price of our modern conveniences often includes trading-in sacred customs and traditions. Harmless apps, news events or even a weather forecast can lead to other media intrusions, and eventually to complete immersion in trivial pastimes and entertainment.
Technology and the media hold our attention during much of our daily life. The fast should offer at least a momentary escape.
Is one who is devoutly obedient during periods of the night, prostrating and standing [in prayer], fearing the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, [like one who does not]? Say, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” Only they will remember [who are] people of understanding. [Quran 39:9].
Fasting, Fiction and Trivia
Not only do modern affluence and technology affect our fasting, they also impacts our devotional attitude. Sitting nightly at a computer enjoying pizza and a soft drink, perusing social media, and listening to degrading secular music is not spiritually productive. Can we avoid comical programs, trivial news, sporting events and sexually arousing shows during our fasting?
We tend to think of fasting as going without food. But we can fast from anything. If we love music and decide to miss a concert in order to spend time with God, that is fasting. It is helpful to think of the parallel of human friendship. When friends need to be together, they will cancel all other activities in order to make that possible. There’s nothing magical about fasting. It’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him, sorting out whatever is necessary, and you have cancelled the meal, party, concert, or whatever else you had planned to do in order to fulfil that priority. [James I (J. I.) Packer].
The fictitious reality offered by television, movies, video games and online entertainment can easily captivate our thoughts and make us forget the purpose of our spiritual fast. Can we exchange the trivial for the Divine?
We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest. [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 148].
Fasting Traditions of the Pious
We may follow the fasting traditions of our pious ancestors, but our nightly meals would be considered a king’s banquet to them. As a result of our abundance and ease, we may fast, yet never really feel hunger. We are satiated even while fasting.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions would often break their fasts with dates and water. We may follow this tradition, but how many times do we go to the refrigerator after consuming the dates and the water?
Their food was mostly dates. The Prophet gave a measure of dates to . . . two men every day. They complained about eating dates, saying it hurt their stomachs, but the Prophet could not provide them with any other food. He asked them to be patient and consoled them . . . He used to apologize to them if the food was not excellent. Once he offered them a platter of something made from barley, and said: “By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, what you see is all the food that is here tonight with the family of Muhammad.” [Akram Diya al Umari, Madinan Society at the of the Prophet, pp. 91-92].
The companions read Quran and prayed every available Ramadan moment. Some completed the Quran several time during the month.
They used to sleep but little of the night, And in the hours before dawn they would ask forgiveness. [Quran 51:17-18].
Today, we consign worship and devotions the periphery of our lives, even when fasting. Only by full immersion in spiritual thoughts, can we focus our senses on the eternal and Divine. Fasting should relegate the inconsequential to its proper place, and give priority to matters which truly elevate and satisfy.
There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast, the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil. [St. Basil the Great].