Wednesday, August 31, 2011


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.


  1. Roman Catholics don't actually fast the whole 40 days... or they're not required to, anyway. Maybe some choose to. :) We are only required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The actual fasting requirement is a pretty easy one... the Church says that fasting means you can only eat one full meal during the day and then the other two meals you can eat some food, but not enough to be considered a full meal.

  2. For a religion with supposedly pretty strict traditions, it seems we've had it taught differently. For us. Lent was a period where you give up pleasure, but fasting wasn't suggested. You'd reduce the sugar in your coffee, or give up desert or cola. Something that you found pleasurable. Of course, you weren't supposed to indulge.

  3. One thing about fasting; not so much to cook, or dishes to wash up later. It's amazing how much more time there is to think and pray - hopefully not about how hungry you are or how much your head hurts.

    Fasting is one of those, oh yeah, we can do this too things for Evangelicals by the way.

  4. Something else I've noticed about working when hungry (I'm not talking about fasting, just the regular delaying of lunch or dinner). It seems to me that it's easier to focus on complex tasks when hungry. It's easier to get into "flow". I wonder if it's also why it's easier to work in noisy places - you MUST turn off the distractions, and as a result, you're more focused.

    Lastly, I wonder if there's an element of "getting people to go beyond their regular selves" involved. There have been studies that show that our behaviour changes when hungry. In particular, we're more likely to take risks, to move out of our comfort zone.