Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting. [St. Basil the Great].
Therapeutic dieting and spiritual fasting are distinct, yet share common ground. Depending on the intention, a fast may be considered an act of worship, a cosmetic endeavor, or even a hypocritical pretense.
A therapeutic diet usually places limitations or restrictions on the food consumed. It is a regimen of nutrition, commonly undertaken for health reasons to achieve a physical result (medical cure; weight loss; catharsis; self-control). Often, it stresses restrictions on food quality and quantity. It is more properly called a diet rather than a fast.
Dieting denotes secular considerations, focusing on material results – less weight, more muscle, smaller thighs, lower cholesterol, etc. In most cases, the purpose of a diet is ultimately to enhance or facilitate physical well-being. One diets to look better in order to achieve worldly results, feel better psychologically, perform better physically. Spiritual benefits are usually not of primary consideration.
From a social perspective, dieting can be totally compatible with fun and games. You can diet and still watch TV, go to a musical performance, or enjoy a sporting event. As long as you eat and drink within your dietary restrictions, you are observing your diet. Isolation from mundane activities is not necessary. You may still maintain your diet while indulging in your favorite pastime. You would rarely tell your friends you cannot accompany them to an event because you are dieting, even though dietary restrictions may reduce enjoyment of the event.
The intention to fast for the purpose of losing weight anticipates a material outcome, a physical result. Usually, one looks in the mirror to see whether the goal of dieting has been achieved. The physical condition of the body determines whether one has been successful.
Therapeutic fasting can actually be in conflict with spiritual development. Excessive emphasis on cosmetically enhancing the body for worldly pleasure, in fact, creates anxiety and stress, instead of tranquility, equanimity and peace of mind.
Fasting, in its spiritual essence, implies sacred considerations. It focuses on purification, repentance and God-consciousness. It often includes social separation, and accompanies meditation and prayer. Rooted in religious and mystical soil, it is cultivated primarily for piety and holiness.
In spiritual fasting, the intent, purpose, and aim of food restriction are primarily to please God.
But that there maybe no error in the name, let us define what fasting is; for we do not understand by it simply a restrained and sparing use of food, but something else. The life of the pious should be tempered with frugality and sobriety, so as to exhibit . . . a kind of fasting during the whole course of life. But there is another temporary fast, when we retrench somewhat from our accustomed mode of living, either for one day or a certain period, and prescribe to ourselves a stricter and severer restraint in the use of that ordinary food.
This consists in three things — viz. the time, the quality of food, and the sparing use of it. By the time I mean, that while fasting we are to perform those actions for the sake of which the fast is instituted. For example, when a man fasts because of solemn prayer, he should engage in it without having taken food. The quality consists in putting all luxury aside, and, being contented with common and meaner food, so as not to excite our palate by dainties. In regard to quantity, we must eat more lightly and sparingly, only for necessity and not for pleasure. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 12:18].
Spiritual fasting is incompatible with fun and games. It is meant to instill a sacred attitude, impart penance, and renew dedication to spiritual affirmations. When you fast, you make a conscious choice to restrict your physical pleasures; an effort to limit worldly involvement is expected. Spiritual fasting with the primary intention to lose weight is comparable to praying for your favorite team to win a game.
Spirituality and Health
Having made these distinctions between fasting and dieting, we note that the boundaries are blurred. Intentions are often complex and multifaceted. Results are not always distinguishable. Spirituality and health are inseparable.
However many blessings we expect from God, His infinite liberality will always exceed all our wishes and our thoughts. [John Calvin].
Persons who start dietary regimens for physical considerations can find themselves viewing reality from a different perspective. Though initially not concerned with spiritual development, dieters may wander into realms of heightened awareness, or stumble onto an enlightened perspective. Similarly, a spiritual fast undertaken solely for religious obligations may result in unexpected physical and health benefits.
The body, mind and spirit cannot be severed into isolated components of the total person. They are inseparably integrated. The Creator has established a natural order allowing for all three to be simultaneously nourished by fasting.
Penitential fasting is obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul. In fact practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God. [Pope John Paul II ].