Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. [The Book of Mormon, Helaman 3:35].
Aspects of Fasting
Definitions and descriptions often fail to encompass fully all aspects of fasting. At times, we fast for penance and atonement, at times, spiritual clarity is paramount, at times, we emphasize subjugation of the flesh.
Some consider simply putting restrictions on their normal diet a fast. Others completely abstain from all foods. Some extend the discipline to include, besides food, restrictions on numerous other “worldly” pleasures.
Fasting can become a regular mode of eating. To eat one meal a day is not extraordinary for many people. Are they fasting? Similarly, to go without eating meat for forty days is considered pious by many, while a vegetarian may wonder why not abstain from meat all the time.
If we think of fasting as a spiritual exercise, we may compare it to running. A casual jogger feels his run of twenty minutes in the park is quite therapeutic, though to a marathoner it would barely be a warmup.
To help clarify the issue, we can use “abnegation” to connote renouncing or abjuring good things in order to restrain the self. In the context of fasting, abnegation suggests restrictions on the quantity, quality and type of food one may consume, even when not fasting.
Abnegation implies denial of social amenities, entertainment, amusement, luxury, pastimes and any other source of pleasure, enjoyment or worldly satisfaction. The idea is to mortify the body, discipline it, tame it, deprive it of comfort and ease.
Early Christian monks not only fasted for long periods, but also restricted their diet to bread, water and a few scanty morsels. This meant that they not only fasted frequently but also abjured meat, fruits, and other available sources of nourishment.
Some individuals and monastic communities tried to subdue the flesh completely by castigating themselves to the point of total exhaustion. They depleted their bodies of all energy, becoming incapable of accomplishing the slightest task, even simple acts of worship.
Regarding fasting and abnegation, Adalbert de Vogüé, a Benedictine monk, noted in his book, To Love Fasting, the need to make a clear distinction. He personally found “regular” fasting quite easy and pleasant. He fasted daily and enthusiastically recommended the regimen.
However, in pleading his case for fasting to fellow monks, he observed that the failures of some experiments in the history of monastic fasting were due to the imposition of additional dietary restrictions on an already meager fare. Many monks not only fasted for long periods, but sought continually to punish the flesh by eating a very limited diet.
Adalbert de Vogüé concluded that one can fast regularly but should break the fast and be fully satiated. To fast and to place additional torturous restrictions on the diet is to attempt an almost impossible endeavor. Thus, it is important to distinguish between fasting and further restricts that amount to abnegation.
Eventually, one can become obsessed with self-denial. Then, the only denial left is to abstain from the pleasure we derive from such deprivations. We must eventually come to the point of abjuring abnegation, abandoning pleasures of abstention.
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: Allah’s Apostle was informed that I had taken an oath to fast daily and to pray (every night) all the night throughout my life (so Allah’s Apostle came to me and asked whether it was correct): I replied, “Let my parents be sacrificed for you! I said so.” The Prophet said, “You cannot do that. So, fast for few days and give it up for few days, pray and sleep. Fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times and that will be equal to one year of fasting.” I replied, “I can do better than that.” The Prophet said to me, “Fast one day and give up fasting for a day and that is the fasting of Prophet David and that is the best fasting.” I said, “I have the power to fast better (more) than that.” The Prophet said, “There is no better fasting than that.” [Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 3: 31, Number 197].
Thus, abnegation may not be beneficial on a continuing basis. Yet, in the darkness of some places and spiritual conditions, the abnegation of pious believers brings light and reassurance to many who come to know them. Such individuals represent a model of commitment, seeking their Lord through almost total abstinence. God knows best.
Consider the lively examples set us by the saints, who possessed the light of true perfection and religion, and you will see how little, how nearly nothing, we do. What, alas, is our life, compared with theirs? The saints and friends of Christ served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in work and fatigue, in vigils and fasts, in prayers and holy meditations, in persecutions and many afflictions. How many and severe were the trials they suffered — the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all the rest who willed to follow in the footsteps of Christ! They hated their lives on earth that they might have life in eternity. [The Imitation of Christ, Thomas À Kempis, Chapter 18].