Serious Christianity (3): Fasting

Young people want more Commitment Not Less, Stephen Cottrell, Church Times 2 February, 2018

Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster,

Earthen Vessels – The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Tradition of the Holy Fathers, Gabriel Bunge OSB, Ignatius Press 2002

To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience, Adalbert de Vogue, St Bede’s Publications, 1989

The Complete Guide to Fasting, Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore, Victory Belt Publishing, 2016

The Obesity Code, Jason Fung, Scribe 2016

One Ramadan, some years ago, a Muslim pupil asked me what fasting was like for Christians. Knowing how hard Ramadan can be I was somewhat embarrassed to describe the residual fasting practiced by most Christians, myself included. He was not impressed, not even by my claim to try and ‘do something extra’ rather than just give things up in Lent.

Recently, in a Church Times article (my former Pastoral Tutor) Bishop Stephen Cottrell wrote that “young people want more commitment not less.” Tweeting the link to the article, I added that I thought what they want is “serious religion.” Fasting is serious religion. Whether it was the serious fasting of Islam or Pentecostalism I have been challenged by many to examine and experiment with my own practice of fasting, and to encourage others to try it. I’ve also been encouraged by my sister, who as a health professional (originally a physiotherapist) working with diabetics and the obese, has developed her own ideas about diet and the issues our society has with food.

My first serious reading on fasting as a spiritual practice was some years earlier, the classic book, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. It is an essential text for anyone interested in the spiritual life. The chapter on simplicity reflects the best of Foster’s evangelical-Quaker tradition and is an important corrective to our consumer mentality.

In his chapter on fasting Foster is shocked to discover that he could not find a single book published on the subject between 1861 and 1954. He ascribes the unfashionableness of fasting to the excesses of earlier ages and the separation of the outward show, and form, of fasting from the inner faith; he goes on to add the obsession we have with eating three meals a day, not to mention the in-between snacks. His survey of the biblical witness to fasting is useful, he mentions the Didache’s prescription of two day-fasts each week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, and I like his descriptions of John Wesley’s view that no one should be ordained to the Methodist ministry unless they fasted on these two days.

However, Foster is keen to point out that there is no biblical commandment to fast. As freed people Christians may fast and St. Paul’s freedom led him to fast often (2 Co. 11:27). Jesus certainly expected that his followers would fast (‘When you fast’) but did not order us to do so. The crucial issue is that our fasting should not centre on us, but on God, so that, like the prophetess Anna in the Temple, we are ‘worshipping with fasting’ (Lk 2:37) and fasting must always be accompanied by worship, as it was for the apostolic group at Antioch (Acts 13:2).

After this ultimate and fundamental purpose of fasting there are, for Foster, three secondary purposes:

1 Fasting reveals the things that control us.

2 Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Mt 4:4) and Jesus said that ‘my food is to do the will of him who sent me’ (Jon 4:32,34)

3 Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. “Our human cravings and desires”, writes Foster, “are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels.”

Foster goes on to give practical guidelines for shorter and longer fasts. These are useful, although I shall later suggest that fasting can be achieved with far less pain and difficulty than he suggests. He also suggests fasting from people, media, telephones, and advertising.

Most importantly Foster writes that,

“Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.”

For the patristic witness to fasting, Gabriel Bunge’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Tradition of the Holy Fathers, has a good section on the discipline. “Since time immemorial prayer and fasting have been so intimately connected that they are already mentioned together in many passages of Sacred Scripture, for “prayer is good when accompanied by fasting’ (Tobit 12:8)”. He even suggests that copyists may have added it to verses where prayer originally occurred alone (Mt 17:21; MK 9:29; 1 Cor 7:5).

For the patristic witness fasting has as its main purposes:

1 it humbles the soul

2 it causes the soul to experience in a fundamental way its complete dependence on God

3 it cleanses the soul, leading to ‘purity of heart’. “He who does not fast exposes himself indecently” (Evagrius) like the drunken Noah.

Finally, fasting has a practical purpose, leading the believer to be more attentive and ready for prayer, “like watching and waking, fasting … prepares the mind of the one who prays for the contemplation of the divine mysteries.”

“A dusty mirror

Does not reflect clearly the figure that falls upon it,

and thinking that has been dulled by satiety

does not receive the knowledge of God.

The prayer of the one who fasts

is a high flying young eagle,

but that of the glutton who is burdened by satiety

is brought down.

The intellect of the one who fasts

is a shining star in the clear sky,

but that of the glutton

remains shrouded in a moonless night.”

(Evagrius)

Finally, Bunge warns that moderation is needed in fasting, as in all things, “what is immoderate and untimely is of short duration. Something that lasts only a short time … is more likely harmful than useful.” (Evagrius).

For a comprehensive view of fasting for Christians, both theoretical and practical, there is nothing better than de Voguë’s To Love Fasting. Although he writes as a monk, and in his later life, when he practised fasting diligently, a hermit-monk, there is much of value in this book and much any Christian can learn from his experience.

The first chapter describes de Voguë’s experimenting with fasting over a period of time. He discovered “that eating only once a day was possible for a modern man like me”. Moreover, he finds that it is when he is furthest from his last meal that his mind is most alert and he is at his most active. He eats a vegetarian diet and has all the proteins, fat and carbohydrates in one meal, eaten at varying points after 3pm according to the season and the monastic tradition of fasting (particularly as described by St Benedict). He finds that fasting has a beneficially calming effect on the sexual desires (important for a celibate monk) but also on other instinctive reactions:

“The habit of fasting effects a profound appeasement of all … instinctive movements. I think the cause is that a certain mastery of the primordial appetite, eating, permits a greater mastery of the other manifestations of the libido and aggressiveness. It is as if the man who fasts were more himself, in possession of his true identity, and less dependent on exterior objects and the impulses that arouse him.”

And, later,

“Instead of the inconveniences and discomfort that I expected, fasting has proved to be a liberation.”

De Voguë practices a complete fast, he does not take any other food or drink than that at his one meal. My own experience is that I need water and herbal teas throughout the day if I am not to feel too hungry and to avoid headaches.

De Voguë’ goes on to describe the difference between what he calls the ‘regular fast’, that is the normal way of eating and not eating – the source of our ‘break-fast’, and other kinds of fast in Scripture and the tradition. After surveying fasting in the monastic tradition he moves to a brief survey of the fast of Ramadan and fasting in Hindu tradition and in the life of Mahatma Gandhi and ends with a mention of therapeutic and political fasts. A more detailed history follows, the most important section of which deals with the inseparability of fasting and almsgiving in the Christian tradition. As early as The Shepherd of Hermas (first or second century) the connection was made between saving money on food by fasting, and giving that for the poor.

It is the decline of fasting and the causes of that decline that occupy the penultimate chapter, de Voguë knows of only one community in the world (Christ in the Desert, New Mexico) where the Rule of St Benedict’s stipulations on diet are followed at all closely. He looks at claims that modern human beings are not able to fast, or have too much work to do compared with our forebears, and dismisses both of these. He is interested in the extent to which the common life mitigates against fasting. Perhaps the disappearance of the regular fast among monastics has its origins in the reduction of silence and time spent in liturgical prayer. Being with other people, the interactions of the day, seems to be harder without food. He finds support for this view in the tradition, in both Isaac of Nineveh and Gregory the Great. This is certainly true in my own experience, I find it easy to go for hours without food when reading or writing but after I’ve been with people the hunger sets in.

De Voguë then traces the decline of monastic fasting and links it to the increase in meals eaten by ordinary people. Breakfast for his great-great-grandfather was unheard of, even when de Voguë began life as a monk an early meal was simply coffee and bread taken standing up. Contrary to modern myths about eating heavily at the start of the day, is eating at that time itself an innovation? De Voguë labels this innovation ‘the English breakfast’.

There is an admirable survey of Reformation attitudes to fasting with time spent on both Luther and Calvin and particular attention drawn to the Oxford Movement. Pusey’s Tract 18 Thoughts on the Benefits of the System of Fasting and Newman’s Tract 21 Mortification of the Flesh: A Duty According to Scripture are little quoted but important reads. The Prayer Book lists 108, 2/7ths of the year as fast days but everything acts as if “the Church herself had tacitly abandoned them” (Tract 18).

De Voguë suggests four reasons for the diminution of fasting:

1 the inconvenience of fasting

2 a disincarnate spirituality which is overly interiorised

3 a conception of fasting as akin to punishment

4 a false interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict as overly moderate and replacing fasting with obedience

I would add to De Voguë’s and Bunge’s reasoning for the absence of fasting our increased awareness of psychology. We are all so conscious of mixed motives and of the pride that can be taken in spiritual works that it is hard to see fasting as God-centred, it is all too easy for us to perceive it as another work of the ego. Our psychological awareness also means a high consciousness of eating disorders and the complex mental heath issues associated with them. Added to this, the ubiquity of dieting and diets, and their faddishness, makes fasting appear less like a spiritual activity and more like just one more fad. Seeking a slimmer physique can seem to be far more about vanity than God-centred living.

However, I believe it is essential that we re-discover fasting as a spiritual discipline, as de Voguë puts it:

“It is hard to see how such a discipline could be missing from a religious tradition which begins with the story of a sin connected with eating and ends with the hope of a never ending banquet.”

As regular readers of this blog will know I am passionate for the renewal of our Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England. In recent weeks there has been much talk of the danger of sharing episcopacy with our Methodist brothers and sisters. In this rush to defend Catholic order I wish there was as much passion for the spiritual disciplines that the Tractarians called for, and are as much a part of our Catholic inheritance.

I have struggled with fasting for a number of years. Endured headaches and felt near to fainting on occasion, just on the most minimal of fasts. But it was my sister and her work on diet that has transformed the experience for me. She recommended the writing of Jason Fung. In particular The Complete Guide to Fasting and The Obesity Code. What is clear is that we are an obese society and that obesity derives from the addiction to sugar/carbohydrates. It is virtually impossible to move comfortably from a high carbohydrate diet to intermittent fasting. For fasting to be successful it needs a fundamental change to the diet we consume. Sugar highs and lows need to be replaced by a steady and regular low-carb diet. To prepare for the day by loading the body with sugars, which the body is then distracted by consuming, is the worst way to prepare for work and activity. To see dieting and care for the body as separate to care for the soul, is a fundamental error that does not recognise the value and beauty of our bodies as temples of the Spirit and the primary, literally first, gift we receive from God. As my sister and I compare notes on our experience of fasting we are aware of its multiple benefits.

Fasting “places [the person] in a state of digestive inactivity and of interior liberty, where [she/]he feels more [her]himself and close to God. This sort of daily retreat continues to pacify [her] his body and soul.” De Voguë

Needless to say, it is hard to see how the consumption of alcohol can fit into a lifestyle that includes both regular and additional fasts. I wonder how much the culture around alcohol in the church and society has contributed to the disappearance of meaningful fasting?

Among my fondest memories of living and working in Lewisham was the gift Pentecostal friends made to me of their fasting, as a sign of intercession. “Fr Richard,” one colleague said, just after we had announced an Ofsted inspection to staff “I will be fasting while they are here, for you and the school”.

The young people I worked with were attracted, not repulsed, by the fasting of Ramadan. When Muslim pupils visited Taizé with us we provided a prayer-tent for their prayers and, with the three times a day prayer with the monks, they prayed eight times each day. As Bishop Stephen wrote, young people want more commitment, they want serious religion. To the extent that we can practice serious Christianity it will be attractive to them.

Pusey and Newman knew a thing or two. If there is to be a renewal of the Catholic stream in Anglicanism perhaps it will begin when we once again practice this ancient discipline and discover with Richard Foster, that:

“Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.”

And the last word on fasting to Pusey:

“if it be that blessed instrument of holiness, which they who have tried it assure us … we shall recover the ground which we have lost.”

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