The Ritual of Fasting

Many religions see the spiritual value in abstaining from food and drink.

Q:

Growing up Catholic, I remember having to not eat meat on certain days of the year, usually before holy days. Do people still fast as a spiritual discipline? What advantages does it have?



A:

Fasting may not seem as prevalent, but it certainly has not disappeared. There is a

Fasting & Prayer movement

--now in its seventh year--that has made a worldwide call to many Christian denominations. It promotes fasting as a means to personal renewal and greater intimacy with God.

Abstinence from eating continues to be a widespread practice in religions around the world. There are absolute fasts without any food or drink, including water. There are also partial fasts in which a person eliminates particular foods, such as meat on Fridays for Catholics, or fasts for only part of the day. On a daily basis, Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia eat their last meal before noon and take no food until the next day.

Generally, there are two main spiritual purposes for fasting: physical purification before performing a ritual act or rite of passage, and self-discipline or asceticism. Among some Native American tribes, fasting is the primary means to stimulate ecstatic experiences on a vision quest. The fast can last from four to eight days or more. Puberty rituals also include a major fast without food or water. In many indigenous groups, shamans, who conduct healing ceremonies, may prepare themselves by fasting.

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Jews and Muslims have never stopped fasting and feasting during prescribed periods. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. The whole day is spent in the synagogue fasting, praying, repenting, and confessing social and moral transgressions. There is total abstention from food and drink from sunset on the previous evening until the appearance of the first three stars at the end of the day. This even includes not brushing the teeth in order to avoid accidentally swallowing water. So holy is Yom Kippur that some Jews in Nazi concentration camps, although starving, gave up their meager portions to carry out this religious obligation.



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Mirka Knaster
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