And when those who believe in Our revelations come unto thee, say: Peace be unto you! Your Lord hath prescribed for Himself mercy. Verily, whoso of you does evil through ignorance but afterwards repents thereof and does right, (to him) He is, indeed, Forgiving, Merciful. [Quran 6:54].
From Jewish rituals to Gnostic renunciation, from Greek drama to modern psychology, the word catharsis has been invoked to describe a purging that heals and restores the soul. It is derived from the Greek katharos, meaning pure.
Generally, catharsis is an emptying of emotions that cleanses away guilt. Spiritually, it is an expelling, vacating and discharging of impurities within us to purify ourselves and reunite us with the Divine.
And he [Aaron] shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering . . . And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for[ Azazel] the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for [Azazel] a scapegoat into the wilderness. [Leviticus 16: 5, 7-10 (KJV)]
And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited. [Leviticus 16:22]
Spiritual catharsis focuses on repentance. It offers a remedy for guilt and sin by encouraging penance, chastisement and punishment. This leads to a sense of purification and reconciliation.
In Hebrew Scriptures, the cathartic sacrifice of the “scapegoat” solicited God’s forgiveness for the sins of the Children of Israel. As part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, the high priest symbolically cleansed the community by transferring its sins to a goat that was driven off into the wilderness.
Christianity interpreted the scapegoat sacrifice in Leviticus as a symbol for the mission of Jesus, who willingly carries away the sins of humanity. The Epistle to the Hebrews renders Jesus as the mediator between God and humanity, elevating the earthly atonement of Leviticus to an eternal Divine intercession.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! [Hebrews 9:11-14 (NIV)]
A spiritual catharsis can also be an emotional release, particularly when we need psychological and intellectual cleansing. We frequently find ourselves immersed in business, academic or social activities that overwhelm us. We feel “fed up,” “can’t take anymore,” “sick and tired of it all” At such times, our perspective becomes clouded and we forget or ignore our most sacred beliefs.
And when the body is subjected to multiple stresses . . . (a bad marriage, long-term caregiving, even extreme exercise), it experiences what is called an “allostatic load,” a compounding of effects leading to a breakdown of the immune system. In all these cases, . . . the brain’s normal hormonal stress response can be blunted. The phenomenon can eventually lead to the body’s inability to respond to any stress – the state popularly known as burnout. [Vital Connections, Science of Mind-Body Interactions. A report on the interdisciplinary conference held at NIH March 26-28, 2001]
Keeping stressful spiritual pollutant from staining our sanctity becomes a form of catharsis. A reclusive retreat provides isolation and offers protection from debilitating influences by encouraging abstinence. It revitalizes the intellect and renews the mind. We often forget that many of our deforming habits start with depraved thoughts. The sin that originates in our mind soon permeates our entire soul, leaving us in a state of suffering and pain. The spiritual fast complements this form of catharsis.
Spiritual Cleansing vs. Physical Catharsis
Physically, we use herbs and medications to stimulate bowel movement and help eliminate intestinal contents. Physical catharsis also comes from filtration and exclusion. Preventing new toxins from entering our body can lead to purging. A fast gives your body time to discharge, naturally, the accumulated debris of prodigal existence.
And now you know not that you have done anything amiss! You can eat and drink and be merry! You are everyday engaged with variety of company, and frequent the coffee-houses! Alas, my brother, what is this? How are you above measure hardened by the deceitfulness of sin! … O, how have you grieved the Spirit of God! Return to him with weeping, fasting, and mourning. [Collected Works of John Wesley, Vol. 02, p.94]
While such therapeutic fasting purges the body and stimulates evacuation of the bowels, the spiritual fast is a laxative for the soul, inducing vomiting by the mind and providing an enema for the heart.
Be well assured that none can be illuminated, unless he be first cleansed, purified, or stripped. Also none can be united to God unless he be first illuminated. There are therefore three stages—first, the purification; secondly, the illumination; and thirdly, the union.
The purification belongs to those who are beginning or repenting. It is effected in three ways; by repentance and sorrow for sin, by full confession, and by hearty amendment.
The illumination belongs to those who are growing, and it also is effected in three ways; by the renunciation of sin, by the practice of virtue and good works, and by willing endurance of all trials and temptations.
The union belongs to those who are perfect, and this also is effected in three ways; by pureness and singleness of heart, by love, and by the contemplation of God, the Creator of all things. [William Ralph Inge].