Religious Fasting: Understanding an Old Practice
Food is more than just sustenance for our bodies. A shared meal is an opportunity for social connection, and we naturally associate some dishes with comfort and well-being. Its preparation can be elevated to an art form, with the resulting cuisine a luxurious sensory experience. Yet at various times during the year, many people willingly give up food for short periods of time. Why do they do this? Learning about fasting and the reasons behind it may help us understand this practice.
What Is Fasting? It Depends on Who You Ask
Cultural Awareness International offers a quick summary of fasting. This custom is observed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim people as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, and those in the Baha’i faith. CNN’s Drew Kann explains that repentance and atonement are key themes, such as in Judaism’s 25-hour Yom Kippur fast. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast to exercise self-control, focus on spiritual things, and practice gratitude by providing food to those in need. Some Hindus fast to purify themselves and their bodies. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions fasting as part of purification rituals in some Indigenous societies.
Christian fasting customs vary according to each denomination. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs the faithful to participate each Friday as well as on Ash Wednesday during Lent. The USCCB defines fasting as abstaining from meat and eating one regular meal plus two smaller food portions that are each less than half of a standard meal. Patheos editor Terry Mattingly reveals that it can take on many forms in different sects:
- Eliminating certain foods, such as meat and dairy
- Eating no food but consuming liquids
- Skipping food and drink from dawn until dusk
- Absolute intake avoidance, cutting out both solid food and liquids
Most belief systems have rules and restrictions for fasting. Exempt individuals include those who are sick, elderly, pregnant, menstruating, traveling, or have conditions such as diabetes or heart failure.
Fasting and Spiritual Enlightenment
Many religious traditions contain stories about revered figures who fasted to repent for sin, purify themselves, or achieve a closer connection to their deities. According to Gospel accounts, Jesus endured temptations while forgoing food and drink for 40 days and nights. Others include St. Catherine of Siena and English mystic Margery Kempe. In contemporary times, some New Age practitioners and celebrities embark on sabbaticals during which they avoid eating or drinking. Self magazine writer Korin Miller recounts Ashton Kutcher’s seven-day fast on a trip to Big Sky, Montana. Kutcher reported that he began having hallucinations early in his ordeal.
Attempts to achieve altered states of consciousness aren’t new. They’re a cornerstone of shamanic and mystic traditions around the globe. Yale University’s Explaining Human Culture project mentions that fasting has been used to induce visions, trances, or prophetic dreams. How can a lack of food change our mental perceptions? Livestrong’s Allison Stevens points to possible stupor and delirium triggered by chemical imbalances, and NPR’s Susan Brink cites hallucinations as one symptom of late-stage starvation. Yet short periods with limited food intake may have some benefits, as Healthline discusses. These include improved blood sugar and boosted brain functioning, which could account for reports of increased mental sharpness from some individuals who fast.
Know Your Limitations
Many belief systems around the world include fasting in their traditions. While these faiths name a variety of reasons for the custom, most emphasize achieving deeper spiritual connections or understanding the sacrifices others have made. In the meantime, it’s important to take stock of both your physical and mental well-being before attempting to restrict your intake. While physical actions can be of great spiritual importance, it is our minds and hearts that receive their benefits.