Wednesday, August 31, 2011

FAST

Fast is a hungry four letter word.

Today marks Eid Al-Fitr (عيد الفطر), the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  A month most noted by non-Muslims as a "fast month".  It got me thinking a bit about fasting, what it means, and how people approach it.  It surprised me to learn that there are so many different approaches to "fasting", even when many of the same goals and purposes are behind each of the fast days that people celebrate.

The biblical religions have different approaches to fasting.  Jews have a primary fast day on the high holy day of Yom Kippur, spending roughly 24 hours without eating or drinking, and generally abstaining from non-religious aspects.  Different Christian sects fast in different ways and for different reasons, but it fascinates me that Roman Catholics fast during the 40 days of Lent by eating smaller meals and not snacking in between meals.  Muslims, as noted, fast for an entire month - it is even one of the core pillars of their religion - but their fast lasts from sunup to sundown each day.  Three different ways to do the same thing - to remove distractions "of the flesh" for some period of time and help the observant focus on their spiritual goals instead.  But it is not just the biblical religions who have the concept of fasting.  Buddhists may practice a half-day fast to help them focus on what being healthy and living well means, while Hindus may take on a number of different forms of fasting for different fast days, depending on their personal and local custom.

It is interesting to see how the fast has changed in modern times.  The reforms after Vatican 2 shifted how the Eucharist fast was to be observed, as it opened up new times that a Eucharist service may be performed and did not wish to impose a hardship on its observers.  The fasts of Ghandi and, more recently, Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila are expressions of sadness at the political system that surrounds them.  We are sure to hear more about fasting next summer during the Olympics, which takes place during Ramadan, and there will be intense discussion about which athletes are observing the fast and which will defer it for health reasons, as permitted by Muslim law.

It seems to me that all of these fasts aren't so much about the fasting itself, but about what happens afterwards.  About spending the fast time reflecting on where we are and what we can do better in our lives.  After the fast, we build up our energy and tackle these head on.  People celebrate Eid Al-Fitr by dressing up "often in new clothes" - let us all end our fasting by clothing ourselves anew and celebrating.

It is morning here.  A new day to celebrate and takle the tasks ahead of me.  To start, it is time for me to break my overnight fast with some... yes... breakfast.