The Sacred Art of Fasting
Thomas Ryan “The Sacred Art of Fasting” (Preparing to Practice)[SkyLight Paths, 2005]
This is the third in a series of paperbacks in the Skylight Paths series “Preparing to Practice” following “The Sacred Art of Bowing” by Andi Young and “The Sacred Art of Chant” by Ana Hernandez.
Author Thomas Ryan is a Catholic priest and as a member of the Paulist Fathers coordinates the order’s ecumenical and interreligious relations in the United States and Canada. He points out that nowadays many people are seeing the value of fasting as a kind of body-ecology, a sane and salutary way of taking care of ourselves. Health care workers and others advocate fasting to calm us down, help us think more clearly, sleep better, clean out the body, and give the whole system a rest. But the world’s religious traditions also have a wealth of insights on this practice. Fasting is a choice to abstain from food and drink at certain times in order to draw closer to God, to care for our enspirited bodies, and to connect with those who are less fortunate than we are.
Ryan does a commendable job laying out how the religions use fasting and mine its many meanings. In Judaism, it is seen as a devotional path to purification, mourning, and atonement; in Christianity, it leads to mystical longing, liberation through discipline, and the work of justice; in Islam, it encourages Allah-consciousness, self-restraint, and social solidarity; in Hinduism, it involves purity, respect, and penance; in Buddhism, its aim is purity of body, clarity of mind, and moderation; and among Latter-Day Saints, its purpose encompasses offerings for those in want and strengthening the faith. Ryan, who fasts once a week, hopes that Christians will be able to bring back this valuable spiritual practice. He makes a good case for linking it with hunger and other social issues.
Ryan wants people to know that fasting is not just for particular periods of religious observance, such as Lent and Ramadan, but instead can be a valuable part of everyday life. He ends the book with creative suggestions for fasts for your eyes, ears; from judging others, anger, resentment and bitterness; and more (see excerpt). He sums things up this way:
“Fasting as a religious act increases our sensitivity to that mystery always and everywhere present to us. It is a passageway into the world of spirit to explore its territory and bring back a wisdom necessary for living a fulfilled life. It is an invitation to awareness, a call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, and a song of joy. It is a discipline of self-restraint, a ritual of purification, and a sanctuary for offerings of atonement. It is a wellspring for the spiritually dry, a compass for the spiritually lost, and inner nourishment for the spiritually hungry.”
“Written by a Catholic priest and author of eight other books, this is an accessible, thoughtful treatment of the common spiritual practice of fasting. For an era characterized by obesity and overindulgence, this study offers a refreshing reminder that religion invites us to temperance; as Ryan puts it, “the body tolerates a fast for better than a feast.” Ryan explores both the physical and spiritual benefits of fasting with an emphasis on the religious grounds for fasting, including purification, repentance, mourning, rejoicing, self-discipline, remembering and prioritizing God, almsgiving, social solidarity and more. One of the book’s strengths is its even-handed introduction to each of the six religions it covers (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism) and the inclusion in each chapter of a “living voice from the tradition.” These narratives allow adherents from each religion to speak form their own belief and experience, and they range in style from simple exposition to personal essay and interview format. The chapter on Christianity is slightly partial toward the author’s own Catholicism, but the principles it explores are broadly inclusive. Another gem is the chapter with suggestions for keeping the spirit of a fast even if actual abstention is not physically possible for health reasons. This is a much-needed treatise that will attract believers from all faiths.”
An Excerpt from “The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice”:
Thomas Ryan explores the uses of fasting for health and as a spiritual practice. In this excerpt on devotion, he suggests ways to fast for those who because of health, age, or life circumstances cannot fast in the traditional sense of abstaining from food and drink. He notes that even for those who are able to fast, these alternate forms can supplement a regular, traditional fast day or replace a day of fast.
“Fast with Your Eyes
• Watch less TV and video; reflect more on your life through keeping a journal.
• Become informed about the causes of hunger in the world.”
“Fast with Your Ears
• Listen less to the radio, CDs, cassettes; listen more to your own inner heart and spirit.
• Be attentive to the words of others.
• Listen to and let yourself be challenged by the words expressed in the scriptures.”
“Fast with Your Mouth
• Take just one helping of the food that is served.
• Eat fewer sweets and processed foods, but appreciate more simple food and drink like water and good bread.
“Fast with Your Hands
• Back off from things that agitate you.
• Take time to just sit and reflect, to rest and observe.
• Make time in your schedule to put your hands together in prayer.
• Share from your own goods with those who have less.”
“Fast with Your Feet
• Become more attuned to the modern compulsion to be always on the go; resist the impulse.
• Offer yourself a daily quiet half-hour of reading that nourishes your spirit.
• Learn quiet sitting in meditation.
• Make more time to welcome others to your home.”
“Fast with Your Body
• Attach less importance to external fashion and makeup.
• Reclaim your natural hair and skin color.
• When eating, practice stopping when you’ve had enough, rather than continuing to eat until you feel full.”
“Fast from Anger, Resentment, Bitterness
• Get to the bottom of why you’re angry or resentful: What’s the hidden demand underneath?
• Do the hard work of talking it through with the other, of expressing clearly what it is you are asking for.
• Pray for the grace of forgiving those who have hurt you.”
“Fast from Judging Others
• Unhook from conversations in which others are being disparaged, or contribute something positive to balance the negative things that are being said.”
“Fast from Complaining
• When you’re feeling inclined to complain, stop and look at all you are blessed with and give thanks instead.”
“Fast from the Presence of Your Children
• When you feel their absence, find some meaning in the emptiness and the silence.
• Choose life for them by supporting them graciously as they strike out to make their own marks in the world.
• Choose life for yourself by turning to and embracing new possibilities for living, growing, and loving.”
“Fast from Glossing Over Your Losses Too Quickly
• Allow yourself to feel the emptiness, the ache, the absence.
• Take the time to do the inner work of grieving.
• Resist the quick but superficial emotional fix, the easy fill-in.
• Risk listening in the silence to the soft voice of inner wisdom.”
“Fast from the Intimacy of a Spouse or Friend during a Temporary Absence
• Leave the heart space vacant and let your longing turn you toward God.
• Refresh your realization in the time of absence that relationship is life’s blue-ribbon experience, that of this ‘food’ we are meant to eat, and that without it we die.
• Let your desire for the presence of the other teach you that we were made for communion, and ‘our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.’ ”
Thomas Ryan “Reap the rewards of fasting” at http://www.paulist.org/profile/reap-rewards-fasting
Sr Mary Totah OSB “Christian Fasting. Disciplining the Body and Awakening the Spirit” [Catholic Truth Society UK, 2012]
“Fasting is an indispensable part of the Christian life, a purification of our habits of eating and drinking, which allows us to rein in our physical appetites.
This informative new booklet explores the Catholic understanding of fasting using Scripture and the teachings of Christ and his Church. The true meaning and value of fasting aligned with almsgiving and prayer is beautifully explained – and complemented by quotations and a question-and-answer section. The Friday Penance, recently given new emphasis, is also discussed in relation to a rediscovering of our Catholic identity.
‘Just as Adam was driven out of paradise for having eaten, refusing to trust, so it is by fasting and faith that they who wish to enter paradise do so.’ – St Athanasius”
Lynne M. Baab “Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites” [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006]
“The ancient practice of fasting is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the spiritual disciplines. Our culture’s contradictory obsessions with dieting and consumption lead to all the more confusion about the appropriate place for fasting in contemporary lives. Won’t it contribute to eating disorders? Doesn’t it denigrate the body and deny God’s good gifts of food and abundance? Questions like these are at the forefront of Lynne Baab’s thoughts in “Fasting”.
Baab deals with the controversy around fasting by first broadening its definition. “Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific time for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation” (p. 16). By doing so, she defines fasting as more about our spiritual appetites, that is, our deepest desires for intimacy with God, than about our physical appetites. Offering examples of different kinds of fasting: fasting from television, shopping, information technology, and even social engagements or acts of service that have become routine rather than grace-filled, the author reframes fasting not as self-deprivation but as spiritually enriching. By deciding to give up activities and habits for a time that have become distracting to the most important things in our lives, we intentionally create space to experience God in new and fresh ways.
By then applying this broader and deeper understanding of fasting to the traditional definition of abstaining from food, Baab brings balance and correction to a practice that has been misused and abused throughout history. Moreover, by presenting a variety of partial food fasts, such as the “Daniel fast,” she offers alternatives to those for whom full fasts are not practical. The author is also very careful to emphasize who should never fast from food, including those who have a history of eating disorders, those with certain medical conditions, as well as children, pregnant women, and others.
Using stories from scripture, church history, mystics, and Christians from different traditions around the world, the author compiles a wide range of experiences with fasting. She also includes a wealth of insightful quotes from contemporaries who have experimented with fasting both individually and in community, as well as a helpful bibliography organized by subject matter. Spiritual directors will find this book an invaluable resource as each chapter ends with questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion along with suggestions for prayer.
Considering our over-saturated culture, “Fasting” is a prophetic voice calling us to remember that we do not live by bread alone. It is an invitation to create space for prayer in a world hungry for Spirit and a challenge to be in solidarity with those in our world who are often hungry for food. It should be noted that Fasting follows Baab’s previous book, “Sabbath Keeping”. The two books together provide a complementary spiritual rhythm of feast and fast. After reading both books, I am convinced like Baab that “in the Western world we need fasting today more than ever” (p. 140).
Romara Dean Chatham “Fasting: A Biblical Historical Study” [Bridge-Logos Publisher, 1987]
“Is it an act of discipline, or perhaps a sign of repentance Is it a cure-all? What exactly is fasting? Author Romara Dean Chatham in Fasting: A Biblical Historical Study, examines biblical accounts of fasting, as well as many other sources and testimonies regarding its practice, in order to search out God’s true intent for believers today. By examining accounts from the Old Testament time period onward through the modern age, Chatham highlights methods, motives, and theological dimensions of fasting, providing a clear and thorough understanding of this Christian discipline.”
Kent D. Berghuis “Christian Fasting: A Theological Approach” [Biblical Studies Press, 2008]
Also available on-line at:
• Introduction: Contribution and Methodology
• Chapter 1: Fasting In The Old Testament And Ancient Judaism: Mourning, Repentance, And Prayer In Hope For God’s Presence
• Chapter 2: Fasting In The New Testament: Remembrance And Anticipation In The Messianic Age
• Chapter 3: Fasting Through The Patristic Era
• Chapter 4: The Development Of Fasting From Monasticism Through The Reformation To The Modern Era
• Chapter 5: Toward A Contemporary Christian Theology Of Fasting
• Appendix 1: Basil’s Sermons About Fasting
• Appendix 2: Fasting In Scripture
For the Orthodox tradition of fasting, see: