About a month ago, my four-year-old son asked if he could participate in a fast. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we participate in a monthly fast in which we forgo food or water for 24 hours. This usually takes place on the 1st Sunday of every month. I wasn’t about to let my son go without food for that long (not that he could make it… the kid asks for a snack just about every 15 minutes) but I was pleased that he wanted to participate. This morning being Fast Sunday, I woke him up and reminded him of his earlier desire to fast and asked him if he still wanted to participate. I also spent a few minutes trying to explain to him why we fast and that it is more then just giving up food. I would hate for him to fast just because it looks so fun to moan and groan about starving like other members of his family who will remain unnamed.
As I was explaining to him the doctrine behind fasting, I found myself thinking a lot more about why I fast. (Teaching kids if often the best way to understand something) It is actually a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve studied other religions. Fasting and many other types of ascetic practices are a common theme in many of faith traditions.
Word of the Day: Ascetic The doctrine or belief that one can reach a high spiritual state through the practice of extreme self-denial or self-mortification.
In my limited study, asceticism already appears to be a central concept in many Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. I was aware that Muslims fasted as a part of the holy month of Ramadan, but am now learning that they also fast throughout the year when in need of additional spiritual strength or focus.
Many christian denominations also participate in various forms of fasting during their observance of Lent. Following the example of Jesus Christ when he fasted for 40 days in the wilderness prior to His ministry, many give up certain foods or activities leading up to Easter. Interestingly, many religious founders participated in seasons of fasting and deep asceticism prior to their ministry such as Muhammad, Buddha, Mahavira (Jainism), and many more.
So what have I learned from these common ascetic practices and how do they help strengthen my own faith? Well, for one thing, I find great strength in numbers. Living as a member of the LDS church outside of the densely mormon populated Utah can often feel very isolating. (I am sure it can still feel isolating even within “Happy Valley”) I am often acutely aware of my differences and fasting can sometimes feel like one more reason to feel weird. However, when I step back and look at these examples of fasting and other ascetic traditions, I no longer feel so alone. People all around the world participate in various forms of fasting. I am one of many believers all reaching out to the divine.
I like an analogy made by Huston Smith in his book ‘The World Religions” (a book I HIGHLY recommend) about the benefits of studying other faith traditions. He talks about vision and how with one eye we can see objects, outline, etc. but with the addition of a second eye, we gain more perspective. We gain depth perception and can see things from another angle.
Coming from an LDS background, I have learned about the practice of fasting and have gained a deep appreciation of the spiritual treasures to be found when we set aside our physical needs for the acquisition of the spiritual. However, my understanding of fasting is deeply enriched as I see similar behavior mirrored by others.
Hindu monks may use fasting to decrease dependence on physical needs and hone their ability to listen to the divine within. When was the last time I looked for the divine within myself on a Fast Sunday?
In Islam, fasting is used to develop the quality of righteousness (taqwa). The word taqwa comes from the root meaning “to guard”. How can my fasting help me to guard against sin and help me to develop generosity, patience, and purity of heart?
Christians reflect on the Savior’s 40 days of purification and preparation during Lent. How is my Fast Sunday cleansing me of worldly attachments and preparing me to do the Lord’s will this month?
Through the various faith traditions, I am inspired to set aside the physical world and approach the divine. Viewed from different angles, I can better appreciate my own fasting practices and respect and admire the practices of others. As I sit here stomach growling, I think of the spiritual feast set out for all mankind and the beautiful diversity of those who have come to the table.