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?


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.

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.

The rabbis emphasize the importance of true contrition as essential to fasting because the physical act alone is not enough to obtain atonement. The practice is based on a passage in the Hebrew Bible:

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial.. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.... (Leviticus 16:29-34)

There are also several minor fasts during the year. In the sixteenth century, the mystic Moses Cordovero added another fast on the eve of the new moon for monthly spiritual inventory. Although an ascetic ideal is considered alien to the spirit of Judaism, during medieval times various mystical schools advocated a strict regimen of fasting and ablutions as a way to get ready for "heavenly ascensions." And, traditionally, a bride and groom would help consecrate their marriage by fasting on the wedding day.

Fasting is also integral to Muslim worship. Of "The Five Pillars of Islam," the fast ( sawm

) is the fourth of the duties Muslims must perform as part of their commitment to God. It takes place during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when the Koran was revealed to Mohammed. Adult Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink, smoke, or even swallow their own saliva. The fast begins at daybreak, from the time a black thread can be distinguished from a white one, and lasts till sundown. It is customary to break the fast by eating a few dates, as Muhammed did.

Part of the popularity of fasting has been its health benefits such as detoxification, weight loss, and energy renewal. However, fasts of that nature are safer under the supervision of a health-care professional. In both Judaism and Islam, only individuals of sound health are required to fast.

Spiritual benefits may unexpectedly accompany even medical fasts. Once we get over the uncomfortable pangs of hunger, fasting often leads to a state of lightness and clarity, as well as freedom from craving. When we are not obsessed with getting food, our thoughts and feelings have an opportunity to settle into deeper or loftier places.

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