The Ritual of Fasting

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

BY: Mirka Knaster

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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