What can we learn from religious fasts?

Depending on where you are in the world, the Islamic month of Ramadan has either started or is about to start. It’s a serious fast for someone like me, with no food or drink to be taken between sunrise and sunset.

Fasting is only one side of Ramadan. Another is ensuring you get enough sleep. In the UK the sun rises at around 5am at this time of year, and sets around 9pm. Throw in the pre-dawn prayers, and it means having to finish eating at around 3:30am. Assuming you break the fast around 9:30pm, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for eating and sleeping.

As an Irishman, I was brought up in the Catholic faith. Growing up I had little or no exposure to non-Catholics. Even when the family moved to London, I went to a Catholic school and mixed in Catholic circles. In short, I was a perfect example of how not to integrate.

We Catholics love a bit of fasting. When I was very young, it was always no meat on Fridays. That changed to being allowed fish. If you went back a generation or two, it was a complete Friday abstinence. Even now the “fasting rule” on Friday differs depending on where you are in the world.

Then there’s the “no eating an hour before mass” rule, which changed to an hour before communion. I never quite understood this change, as you could eat directly before leaving for mass and in most cases still make that pre-communion deadline, as this was received shortly before you left the church.

Our major fast is Lent covering the 40 days before Easter, although it isn’t really a fast. It’s more an opportunity to give something up. Like most young impressionable scallies, I was encouraged to give something up for the duration when I was young. Predictably most of us gave up sweets, knowing full well we wouldn’t last a week.

As an adult with a much deeper appreciation of various religions, it is clear just how different they are when it comes to fasting. Most fast at some time or other, but for quite different reasons. The one exception I’ve found is Sikhism.

Quite a few have short period fasts, and have different rules. For example Judaism, Buddhism, and Hindu have fasts around feast days or periods of reflection. Buddhism allows milk during fasts, whilst Judaism doesn’t allow any liquids. Hinduism’s rules vary based on local customs.

In the Christian faith even Lent has different durations. The Syrian Orthodox Church has it at 50 days, and the Coptics 56 days. Even then, one look of the wikipedia page on religious fasts, demonstrates how Christians are hopelessly split between the eastern and western traditions. And within those different churches from various geographical regions, that have different rules.

I’m tempted to try a sunrise to sunset fast for a day. I won’t do it for any theological reason, just to see what it feels like. I’ve gone without meals before, but hardly ever out of choice. To do so for 40 days, and to deal with the lack of sleep and logistical nightmare of food preparation, is something I don’t aspire to.

If I do, I’ll report back on my findings. Not today though.

5 thoughts on “What can we learn from religious fasts?

  1. In northern Europe, yes, the fasting times are very long. Luckily here it’s not that bad at all! Finishing sohoor before 5.30 and then breaking fast again at 19.30ish. At the moment it is 16.25, I am cooking already, preparing dinner, and the food for tomorrow morning too already so it only has to be warmed up. Dishes is for the day! I like to contemplate about life, existence, actually, especially with food in my hands. It gives an awareness to work with food, smell the smells of fried tofu, rinsing your hands, all of that in 35 degrees in a humid monsoon season. It does make one think 😉


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