This is all of course missing the point and perhaps more importantly failing to take advantage of the spiritual benefits of fasting. The Islamic mystic and poet Rumi in the 13th Century with regard to fasting described us as like musical instruments called to make a beautiful sound for God. If the sound box of a stringed instrument is stuffed or the pipe of a wide instrument is blocked, it cannot make the music which is its calling, or if a pen is clogged with ink, it cannot write beautiful verse. His point being that fasting is a spiritual clearing of worldly desires that block the desire for God.
St Augustine said, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.” This again is important, it is a practice we can return to time and time again to reset ourselves.
Secondly, enlightenment thinking. In the west we have become very cerebral about many things, especially religion, which is often seen as merely an intellectual pursuit. In doing so we fall into the heresy of dualism and make the mistake of separating body and soul. We are not disembodied minds riding around in this vehicle of the body, but rather one person made up of body and soul or mind. As such, and as we truly know if we are honest with ourselves, the state of our bodies has an impact on the state of our minds, on our feelings, our emotions. We have coined such words as ‘hangry’, and adverts for popular confectionery tell us such things as “You’re not you, when you’re hungry”, which for some of us might not actually be a bad thing! We use food and mealtimes to regulate our emotions, as structure to build our daily lives around. Food has more than just a physical nourishing effect on us. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but the question is what is in control, our appetites or our mind. Fasting is a practice that enables us to examine our motivations and realign our will and the control of our higher selves. It is ironic that as we have become more cerebral in our religion, we have perhaps become more physical in our sin.
The third mistake we make in the west is perhaps the most pernicious and most harmful for the church, that is seeing religion in terms of practical purpose and value. Fasting and Abstinence are not seen as useful in that they have no obvious value for other people; whereas charity and almsgiving are good. The hidden attitude behind examples as stated at the beginning of this article are that fasting and abstinence are seen as selfish and even, paradoxically, indulgent. Churches are judged in society by what value they give, running foodbanks and helping those in need puts you at the top of the league of Churches, whereas ‘pointless’ things such as prayer, piety, silence and devotion are little worth. However, the primary purpose of the Church is in relation to God, surely any practice that makes an individual better in that respect, is good for those around them too, good for all mankind. I used to say that the purpose of fasting was to train the mind to say no to oneself, to practise self discipline so that one is trained to resist temptation, I now realise that it is more than this, I was falling into the mistake of trying to find a practical purpose for fasting, one which I now suspect may not even be entirely true. The simple and perhaps uncomfortable reality is that although none of us in the healthy and gluttonous west are going to die if we miss a few days of food, we nevertheless feel like we might! Fasting is above all a confrontation with our own mortality and with the temptations and irrational pleadings and justifications of our appetites.