Keeping the Fast

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Editor’s note: This column, Outside Perspectives, addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the Catholic Church’s teaching.

In June, Muslims complete a month of prayer and fasting known as Ramadan, the ninth month of their calendar. (The dates of Ramadan change every year.) The fast, known as sawm, is one of the five pillars of Islam. According to Islamic practice, all Muslims must fast from sunup to sundown each day of Ramadan. Only children, the elderly, the infirm, or travelers are ordinarily exempt. 

The fast is absolute; even a drink of water breaks the fast. If one breaks the fast intentionally after one has vowed to fast, he or she is required to fast for 60 days (roughly double the length of Ramadan) or provide enough charitable assistance to feed 60 people. During the fast, Muslims make other renunciations, refraining from violence, anger, gossip, swearing, smoking, and sex.

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The fast is ordered in obedience to Allah — the Arabic word for God. At the ending of the fast each day at sunset, it is traditional to take some food and/or water and pray, “O Allah! I fasted for you, and I believe in you, and I put my trust in you, and I break my fast with your sustenance.” 

For Muslims, the fasting of Ramadan has many benefits. It is a form of physical and spiritual purification meant to foster self-restraint and earn spiritual merit. Mohammed was said to have taught that successfully completing the fast could forgive past sin. 

But fasting is not limited to Islam. The Judeo-Christian tradition bears witness to its importance. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets advise praying and fasting, especially during time of need. The practice became closely connected with repentance and returning to the Lord:

“Return to [the Lord] with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12).

Interestingly, the New Testament provides fewer examples of fasting. Jesus forbade his disciples to fast while he was with them (for example, see Matthew 9:15) since, as the early Christians came to understand, fasting is meant to show sorrow for God’s absence. After the Resurrection, it is clear that the apostles fasted. In sending out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries, “[after] completing their fasting and prayer, [the apostles] laid hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). 

The Egyptian desert monks of early Christianity fasted often, positing the relationship between body and soul, believing that fasting was spiritually meritorious. As one achieved greater self-mastery over the body, one could turn to higher, spiritual realities. The monks sought to imitate Jesus as literally as possible, especially in his example of contending with the devil while fasting for 40 days in the desert (see Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13).

Today the Church emphasizes, but does not limit, fasting to the 40 days of Lent. Christians’ fasting, unlike the practices of Ramadan, is most often a partial fast, such as the fasting asked of Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This entails reducing the number of meals (usually to only one) or size of portions or kind of food taken (only bread and water, for instance). Christians, whether religious or laity, voluntarily take up fasting on other days, often Wednesdays (the day of Jesus’ betrayal) and/or Fridays (the day of his passion), as a way to unite the believer to the suffering of Jesus.

For the Christian, in a way similar to Islamic practice, fasting is meant to change one’s focus from oneself to God. It is a form of asceticism that helps attain self-mastery over one’s desires, increases the virtue of temperance, and highlights the believer’s need for conversion from sinfulness and selfishness. Fasting helps order one’s life to love God and neighbor more profoundly and readily. It is linked to charity and solidarityidentifying with those who lack and ideally taking that which has been renounced and giving it to those in greater need. 

For Muslims and for Christians, fasting is not a form of self-punishment nor an end in and of itself. It is meant to be a means to spiritual growth and a reminder of the need for obedience to the divine. It is a form of discipline in which that which is good is renounced for a time for the sake of a higher good: our relationship with God.

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