Orthodox Christians too attach great importance to fasting. Having spent time in Ethiopia recently, I know well how people are expected to abstain from not just meat, but also eggs and milk every day during Lent and on Wednesdays and Fridays the rest of the year.
Not all Christian denominations behave in the same way, though. In the West fasting is certainly a practice on the wane, probably because the codes of conduct have been given a laxer reading. In general, all formal rules of behaviour have been loosened into a supple set of personal resolutions, subject to personal interpretation.
If this epochal change, spurred by a drive to highlight substance rather than form, has had the undoubted merit of putting more value on the individual and his role of responsibility, on the other hand it has eventually tainted the absoluteness of any precept. Free to behave according to their own decisions, people are easily swayed by convenience or weak willpower. Even believers look down on fasting as a thing of the past.
A question arises at this point: what’s the ultimate purpose of fasting? Why should man of his own free will subject himself to making a sacrifice when there is already enough suffering and hardship in life without looking for more?
The obvious answer in a religious context is: God ordered it – or so clerics will say and believers chime in. But if we take a secular approach to the issue and from this angle try to explain religion itself, there are interesting lessons to be learnt from why this practice was ever invented.
One reason is related to identity. Having a whole community observing the same rite at set times creates a tremendous sense of belonging and entitles complying (or hypocrite, for that matter) people to exert control over recalcitrant individuals. In this way the community is strengthened and its officers emboldened in their controlling power.
A second reason is that external practices are easier to observe and enforce than interior precepts. Obedience to rules regarding dressing code and eating habits can be easily verified, unlike the inner motives of one’s actions or thoughts. Sadly enough, it is also true that the flaw of external precepts is to create classes of self-righteous people that go about questioning the behaviour of others.
However more significantly on a deeper lever, fasting is a powerful character-building exercise and its importance transcends the simplistic explanation as divine commandment. It whets the relish we derive from the things we like, insomuch as it makes them less available and taken for granted. It is especially when something becomes rare that we start appreciating its value.
But probably most of all things, it liberates us from our own slaveries. It may seem absurd to see a curb on our free will capable of achieving this goal, when we live in societies that are already so heavily charged with rules that come to thing about it, their very burden can be crushing, let alone add new voluntary ones. However, a deliberate resolution shows us it’s us and not stuffy habits that govern our lives. We can effectively get rid of addictions by the sheer action of our willpower. Given that fasting takes place at recurrent intervals and not throughout the year, it breaks the rut we all tend to fall into and get bored of.
There are of course several forms of fasting that innovate from the eating or drinking prohibitions prevalent in the past. I once read a suggestion that recommended not opening a letter straight upon receiving it. I first thought how stupid, but upon reflexion I realised this was a potent way in which to rein in one’s desires and act thoughtfully rather than on the spur of the moment.
For most of us giving up using the pc in our private lives on given days would make us rediscover a pleasurable dimension to our spare time that had been completely lost under the brunt of digital dominance. For the more enterprising, a very interesting exercise is banning gossip, which involves a complete rethink of one’s speaking habits, and probably also a reshuffle of one’s conversation partners.
A hedonist would probably think that fasting is just self-inflicted nonsensical pain, but taken with a grain of salt, it is a practice that has a lot to teach us. It should not be dismissed as old conservative stuff.
- Do you fast in your country, culture or family?
- What's your opinion about fasting?
- Do you think it is useful?