Faiths that Fast: A Discussion of the Spiritual Practice of Fasting

Leaders from seven major faith communities in Los Angeles discuss the spiritual practice of fasting at The Guibord Center’s Iftar Dinner at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Faiths that Fast reminds us of the common purpose of fasting: To draw closer to the Holy and make us more mindful of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Seven faiths. One spiritual practice. FASTING.

Heads nod throughout the room. People lean forward listening attentively. Eyes meet in a sparkle of recognition. Understanding grows. Deepens. Biases crumble.

Leave it to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord to bring leaders of various faiths, all from The Guibord Center’s Board of Directors and Advisory Council, together in one room during the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan. They have been brought together to explore how different faiths see and engage in the spiritual practice of fasting. Each person tells stories with humor and humanity about what fasting means to them personally as well as to their faith. The result is fascinating. There are insights and laughter. New knowledge and affirmations of sharing in the same journey and hungering for the same thing.

Fasting and abstinence make room for God, allow us to be come more aware of God, to focus on and hunger for God, to open our hearts to God and to one another. Fasting – no matter what our specific faith – is a way to deepen our spirituality and grow in our appreciation of the bounty we have and in compassion for the unmet needs of others.

Fasting is private and intimate. It is communal and connecting. Joyful and rigorous. Demanding and liberating. Exhausting and energizing. Powerful and humbling and profound. It is all this and much more.

Randy Dobbs began the hour by explaining that Baha’is pair fasting with prayers. Baha’is fast from sunrise to sunset for 19 days immediately preceding the Baha’i New Year on the Vernal Equinox March 19/20 . “There is physical food and there is spiritual food. The soul needs nourishing even as the body must have sustenance. We deny ourselves physical nourishment to affirm the spiritual food for which we truly hunger.” He shared from the rich body of Bahai readings that do, indeed, nourish the soul. He set the tone for the panel.

Dr. Rini Ghosh explained that while the specifics of the fast differ from region to region throughout India, the intention of fasting in Hinduism has always been the same: to focus on God. Think of all the time it takes to plan and get and prepare and consume food, she said with a chuckle. It can be re-channeled into time spent contemplating God. Fasting, she added, has a secondary benefit: it helps us to appreciate the struggle of those who are forced to go hungry. Rini also touched on the remarkable power of fasting as she told the compelling story of Mahatma Gandhi halting the bloodbath going on in his country through his fast.

“Christians fast because Jesus fasted. And Jesus fasted because he was a faithful Jew”, stated  Episcopal priest, the Rev. Canon Dan Ade. Fr. Dan confessed that he was just as astounded as many Episcopal Christians are to discover the numerous days of fasting included in The Book of Common Prayer, the guiding text for his denomination.

Abstinence and prayer provide us with the opportunity to order our thoughts and impulses so we can to be better able to follow the Lord’s teachings. Fasting reminds us of our dependence before God and of what we have been given. It’s not really about food, it is about intentionally marking the relationship between ourselves and God, about creating space to encounter God and God’s graciousness. Much to the delight of the attendees, Father Dan concluded by sharing his unique and quirky “L.A. fast”  that brings him rich rewards every Lenten season.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels opened his talk to mixed chuckles and groans with the story of his worst fast. He then went on to explain that “on Jewish holidays when we eat, we eat symbols of our history; and on fast days, we abstain from foods because of our history.” He also noted the compassion that is called for within different instances of fasting. “I cannot celebrate my freedom, my victory, as it is some else’s defeat.”

After describing other fasts, Rabbi Neil turned to Yom Kippur.  He noted it is not really about food. It’s about atonement, about apologizing for your wrong doing and most significantly about the penetrating hope for our lives articulated in the prophetic section of the Bible where God’s intention is made clear. The gist of the message being: “The fast that I want is for you to free the captive. The fast that I want is for you to clothe the naked. The fast that I want is for you to feed the poor. THAT’S what I want.”

Getting through our wrong-doings to the place where we do well, and do good to the world, giving to the world THAT is the purpose of Yom Kippur, of that special day’s fasting, which only happens one time of year and is a national day of fasting.

Nirinjan Singh Khalsa shifted the discussion by pointing out that Sikhs don’t fast from food. As a matter of fact, he continued, Sikhs are known for feeding people – hundreds of thousands of people every day. “That is because not only do we like to eat, we like to make sure that everybody else gets to eat too”. “While Sikhs don’t give up food, the concept of fasting, becoming closer to God, is very important in the sense that we give up 2 1/2 hours every morning before the sun rises to meditate on God.”

As the final speaker, Sister Vino was able to summarize. “No matter what our traditions or customs are, our purpose is the same: eternally living to our best potential and connecting to the Supreme – however you would call the Supreme – … however we do that.”   She spoke of the many things that Brahma Kumaris fast from all their lives: food that comes from meat [They are vegetarians], drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Most importantly they fast constantly within their thinking through the discipline and practice of meditation.

Like Sikhs, she noted that BK’s meditate in the early morning hours, rising from 2 -5 for that time of calming and clearing the mind by seeking to attune with one’s best self and with the Supreme. Their belief is exemplified by the quote: “We don’t see the world through a window. We see the world through a mirror.” Clearing the mind and caring for one’s inner needs allows one to see others clearly without judgement instead of unconsciously projecting the accumulation of one’s own unresolved issues dangerously onto others. That way we can always accept people as they are instead of from their weakest place.

“All of our practices are different – the way we do it – but our hearts are all the same. We are one spiritual family.”

Dr. Lo Sprague is Vice-President of The Guibord Center – Religion Inside Out. She believes passionately that all people should have the opportunity to fully EXPERIENCE the programs and events offered by The Guibord Center. For those who are unable to attend in person, she does her best to recreate the sights, sounds and feelings evoked in the program. Reading her account and watching the video are the “next best thing” to being there.