There are countless religious traditions throughout the world but one practice which seems to be part of all of them (or at least most) is the art of fasting. Religious people on every continent have traditions of fasting. It is part of the Abrahamic religions, the Eastern religions, and indigenous religions around the world. It seems that no matter what system of belief you follow, fasting bears spiritual fruits. In a series of previous articles leading up to this one we’ve discussed the reasons why one would fast. We looked at The Merits of Asceticism, Training for Holiness, and Asceticism as an act of Solidarity. You can click each of those titles to check them out. In this article we will be looking at the practical side of fasting and how one can incorporate it into a modern spiritual practice.
A great place to start this conversation is with the modern movement of intermittent fasting. This is a secular movement which advocates for regular periods of fasting from a body health perspective. I am not a doctor by any means, and I don’t know much about the benefits to the body of intermittent fasting, but I do know that this kind of fasting can be an excellent spiritual practice. If you already practice some kind of intermittent fasting, why not make it a spiritual practice as well? If you live with someone who practices intermittent fasting, even for non-spiritual reasons, you may choose to pick up the same rhythm they have. My wife started intermittent fasting for health reasons and I joined her for spiritual reasons. Now we have an almost monastic rhythm in our home and the difference in motives doesn’t really matter. The shared practice helps us both stay on track and share in something together.
For me, my regular ascetic practice looks like this. I have nothing but water between the hours of 8pm and 12pm each day. In the morning, while my mind is still focused from hunger, I dedicate one hour to my other spiritual practices. I am currently using the book Talking Back from Evagrius Ponticus to work on addressing some of the vices I carry in my hidden recesses of my heart. The short scripture verses it lists are chosen to help us heal the wounds we carry in our hearts from the difficulties of life here on earth. I use the verses in lectio divina. After I have done the lectio I spend some time reading, usually The Cloud of Unknowing for me, but whatever book you feel called to study and learn from is good for you.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, it is important to engage mind, body, and spirit in our practice. For me, fasting engages the body, lectio divina engages the spirit, and study engages the mind. By weaving these three aspects of myself into my practice I keep it holistic and balanced. If you cannot fast for medical reasons, or simply do not feel called to that kind of prayer, I encourage you to find an embodied prayer of another kind. In recent times a body prayer named after Julian of Norwich has gained some popularity. You can check out this short video which demonstrates how it’s done if you’re curious.
Of course, Jesus himself advocated for fasting both by example and in his teaching. One of the most famous scenes in the Gospel is his journey into the desert to fast for forty days and nights. Immediately after his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus undertook ascetic practice in order to confront temptation and come to terms with his person and the purpose of his life. In the sermon on the mount he gave a beautiful teaching about how we should conduct ourselves while fasting. He said,
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Jesus is obviously assuming we will be fasting when he gives this instruction and the book of Acts shows that fasting was an essential part of the early Church. Whenever they were seeking God’s guidance or blessing on an event they would fast first. I encourage you to read the book of Acts again if you missed this the first time through it. It is one of those key elements of the scriptures which people tend to ignore in our modern world.
The take home message from the way fasting is portrayed in the New Testament is that this practice helps us to have clarity. Jesus fasted at the beginning of his ministry so that he would be ready for what his Father had planned for him. Paul and the others fasted for the same reason. As we approach the season of Advent, you may choose to take up a practice of fasting in preparation for the feast of Christ’s birth. In this way, you may prepare a way for God in your heart. This is really what Advent is all about. John the Baptist is the main figure of Advent because he helped people to prepare themselves for the coming of Christ. John was also one for fasting. It was by living an ascetic life in the desert that he was able to prepare a way for the Lord. So, dear sisters and brothers, prepare a way for the Lord this Advent. Take time to be holy and speak often with God. Fast, pray, study, and make a room for Christ to be born inside you.
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