For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began on this past Friday evening. Ramadan is so central to Islam that it is considered one of the “five pillars” of the faith, and fasting is central to Ramadan. With only a few exceptions (which I’ll get back to in a moment), every Muslim is expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, taking no food or water from sunrise to sunset. (I’ve read that the actual timing is described as being from the moment when you are first able to discern the difference between a black hair and a white one, until the last moment that you can. I don’t know why, but I love that.)
And while the prohibition against eating and drinking between those times is highlighted, that’s not the only aspect of the fast. Wikipedia’s article about the Ramadan fast notes that:
During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, angry/sarcastic retorts, gossip, and are meant to try to get along with each other better than normal. All obscene and irreligious stimuli are to be avoided as purity of both thought and action is important.
This is important to keep in mind. The Ramadan fast — as is true of all religious fasting practices, actually – is about a whole lot more than not eating. As the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “The one who does not give up false speech and evil actions, Allah does not need their refraining from food and drink.”
Yet it is the “refraining from food and drink” that is the most obvious element of the Ramadan fast – and all religious fasting – so I think it’s worth looking at those exceptions I’d mentioned earlier. Islam requires all Muslims to fast, except for those for whom it might be unsafe or unwise. Specifically mentioned are pre-pubescent children; those with medical conditions such as diabetes; elderly people; pregnant or breastfeeding women; and those who are traveling or ill. In other words, and these are my words, you’re expected to fast unless doing so would be harmful.
I find this especially important, because the last time I preached about fasting was during my first two or three years as a preacher. It was, as I recall, a decent sermon, but what I remember most is that afterwards a member of the congregation called me, very upset, and asked if she and her daughter could come to meet with me. When they did, the mother explained that her daughter struggled with an eating disorder, and that on the way home from that service the daughter had said, “You know mom, the minister just gave me permission not to eat.” They provided me with a lot more information and insight about eating disorders than I’d had, and I’ve since tried to always be clear that when I’m talking about fasting, and particularly when I’m talking about fasting from eating, one should never fast if doing so would be harmful.
But why do it in the first place? Why choose to give up something? Why choose to do without something that we like, that we enjoy, maybe even that we need? There are lots of reasons. Some are purely health related – a cleansing fast would be an example, and I might do that because of all the junk I typically eat, or to try to reduce some of the stressors on my body from living in the toxic atmosphere of a 21st century city, or because I’m going to have one of those medical procedures for which you need to be “cleaned out” beforehand. But I’m thinking about religious fasting, fasting as a spiritual practice, and there are many reasons for that, too.
I don’t think it’ll come as any kind of shocking surprise to anybody, but life can get pretty hectic. Or, for many of us, life is pretty hectic, and it can get hectic-er. There is so much going on, and the pace can be exhausting. We have access to more stimulus of more kinds, from more directions, with more intensity, than perhaps at any other time in history. And so much of it, really, is entirely unimportant, is just fluff, noise. Someone has said that said the hardest thing to explain to a time traveling visitor from the 1950s would be that we have in our pockets devices that give us near immediate access to virtually all of the information we humans have ever encountered, and we use it to share pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers. And there are a lot of cat pictures, and a whole lot of people on the internet who are wrong.
Put simply, for so many of us our lives are often crammed to overflowing, with more and more being added all the time. How many of us have found ourselves trying to find the time to add a meditation practice into our day so that we can experience a little peace and simplicity? Trying to find the time to set a little time aside for nurture and self-care, yet we just can’t seem to find the time for it? And making the time to do something to reduce our stress just adds … a whole lot more stress.
This is one of the reasons for fasting – it takes something out. And not just something, not just any old thing, but something that matters to us, something that is part of the fabric of our lives, something that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think all that much about it. In the case of food we so often eat on autopilot, at our desks at work, or in the study carrel, or in the car on our way from one thing we need to do to another thing we need to do. But fasting makes us stop; makes us think about it. Fasting makes us stop, makes us get off autopilot. This thing most of us in this society take for granted – eating – fasting make us take a look at it. Ironically, it makes us look at it by making us not do it. Where normally we might reach for a bag of chips, or an energy bar, without thinking, we now have to think about not doing so.
I am certainly aware that not everyone in our society – not even everyone in our congregation – is able to take food for granted like this. Some people, some people here right now, many people, struggle hard to figure out how to get food on the table. The numbers of people who make use of our first-Friday food pantry are testimony to this; the numbers of people who need the Thanksgiving baskets we work with the Ebenezer Baptist Church to make, or the Christmas food drive we do here; the numbers of people who come to my office, sometimes with some regularity, to ask if the ministers’ discretionary fund might help them afford to buy groceries for another week is proof that not everyone in our society, or in this community (however affluent it might seem), can take food for granted. I want to be clear that I am clear that fasting from food – intentionally abstaining from eating – is something of a luxury we all can’t afford. For some of us, it’s not an option, not a spiritual practice, it’s a near-daily reality.
So this is a good time to say again that fasting is really about more than not eating. We can fast from anything that matters to us, that is part of the fabric of our lives, that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think about it all that much. It could be checking in each day with Rachel Maddow, or checking your twitter feed every 23 ½ seconds. It could be stepping away from Facebook for a time. Or it might be, as in the Muslim tradition, refraining from “angry/sarcastic retorts [or] gossip.” (Which for some of us might be well-nigh impossible.) You can fast from anything, really, that’s become a habit, that’s become such a habit that you don’t really notice it anymore. Because so much of our lives are lived habitually, and that’s one of the gifts of a fast – it makes you notice. Fasting can help us to notice the ways our living has become “habitulalized.”
Many of us, most of us, fill up so much of our time with things that we don’t even ever really experience, becausethey’ve become a habit, so fasting opens up a space. And then we get to ask ourselves – what shall we do with this open space in our lives? In most religious traditions, the answer is that the time we would normally have been spending in unconsciously preparing – or driving up to a window and buying – food, and the time we would normally have spent eating it, can now be spent thinking about, and connecting with God. As I said earlier, “during Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam,” and a Muslim can expend this extra effort precisely because they are not expending effort on all that goes into eating. (And the same would be true, of course, of whatever kind of fast we might make. The time we might spend on Facebook, the energy we might spend tweeting and retweeting, consciousness we spend on binge watching something on Netflix or Hulu – all of that time and energy is freed up to consider, if not God for you, then what your life is really all about, the choices you have made (or are in the process of making), the things about yourself that are worth loving, and the parts of you that are worth loving if you could let go of your old voices and tapes that tell you that they’re not. Fasting – whether from food or anything else – is really, essentially (meaning, in its essence) not about what you’re not doing, but about the space that not-doing creates and what becomes possible in that space.
I’d like to lift up one more gift that fasting – that “intentionally giving up, consciously choosing to go without” – offers: faith. Especially for those who have made fasting a regular part of their spiritual practice – like Muslims during Ramadan, or devout Christians during Lent – fasting reminds us of the truth “we can get through this.” From all I’ve been told – and I admit that I’ve never done it myself, so I can’t say first-hand – refraining from eating and drinking for a day, thirty days in a row, is not easy. But always there is iftar, the meal that breaks the fast each evening right after sunset. I have done shorter fasts, and can say that that first piece of sweet pepper with which I return to eating is the sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten. There is another side to this seeming deprivation, however difficult it is. And this experience of renewal, this direct, first-hand experience of resurrection (if you will) can be generalized to other dimensions of our lives.
As with most spiritual practices, when honestly and deeply engaged, the practice of fasting leads to a greater sense of trust, of faith, in life. So much of the busy-ness with which we fill our lives comes from fear – fear that we’ll be missing out on something good or important, fear that what we have won’t last, fear of scarcity, that we don’t have enough (of whatever we fear we don’t have enough of), fear that we are not enough and that we must constantly prove ourselves by all that we do and have. These truths are among the things that people who regularly fast say that they discover in that space that is opened up by their fasting. And their practice or fasting, over time, helps them to realize that these supposed truths are not really true at all.
So much of our lives are lived from a place of fear. So many of our choices are made in response to our fear. So much of who we are, and who we can be, is wasted by fear. Perhaps this is the greatest gift fasting can offer us – the lived experience that enough is enough, that our lives, that we, don’t need to be always full, always stuffed, always moving, always doing … that we are enough. And when we know that we are enough, those fears fall away. And as those fears fall away, courage emerges. And when we live our lives with courage, all things are possible.