Gandhi did it. So did Muhammad, Moses, Hippocrates and Buddha. Jesus did it for 40 days and nights in the Judean Desert. Fasting is a common practice for millions of people and in all major religions.
Some fasts are extreme: every year, a few hundred followers of Jainism in India starve themselves to death hoping to achieve salvation. Some fasts are political: last November, University of Georgia student Gary Ashcroft announced he would support candidate Hillary Clinton by fasting for 24 hours, in keeping with his Mormon tradition of giving up food one day a month. This month, Christians are in the midst of Lent, historically a 40-day period of fasting, though few today give up much more than chocolate.
This tradition of self-denial has persisted for centuries as a way to get closer to God. Today, it often takes on a new spin. Consider the popularity of The Daniel Fast Made Delicious, a vegan cookbook that promotes a 21-day partial fast inspired by the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who declined to eat at King Nebuchadnezzar’s abundant table, favouring instead a simple diet of fruits and vegetables. Fans claim the fast helped them go “from gluttonous to glorious.”
Admittedly, many who fast today are more concerned with whittling their waistlines than sharpening their spiritual edge — thus the popularity of juice cleanses and detoxifying teas. But some who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are embracing the notion that giving up three square meals a day can lead to a more well-rounded life. Fasting helps them transcend their attachment to food, identify with the poor, boost self-control and gain greater clarity and even a better understanding of faith traditions not their own.
For example, two years ago the Fast with a Muslim Friend initiative was launched by Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada to help break down barriers by inviting non-Muslims to experience Ramadan. More than 200 Canadians signed on to fast for a day and then join a Muslim family in their neighbourhood for an evening meal.
Anne Pearson, a religious studies professor who teaches a course on Gandhi at McMaster University in Hamilton, calls fasting a “classic way to develop character.” Gandhi fasted as a means to develop inner strength to face life’s challenges — and anyone can do the same, she says. “Undoubtedly, fasting has benefits whether or not you are religious. In life, we all face unexpected difficulties and tragedies, and we need to find ways to fortify ourselves so that we have a reservoir of strength to draw on.”
Some, like former United Church moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps, fast for the greater good. In 2009 and 2011, he fasted for seven and 10 days respectively, in support of leaders at the United Nations climate change conference, subsisting only on broth. For hours each day, he stood outside the constituency offices of political leaders in Calgary, including then-prime minister Stephen Harper. The effort gained national publicity.
“Some people thought this was kind of crazy,” he admits. But Phipps was determined to use his fast to draw attention to climate change, an issue he believes is the greatest spiritual challenge of our time. “Giving up food [was] my offering, an embodiment of the struggle to save our fragile world.”
Like Phipps, many who fast believe they gain a whole lot more than they give up. As Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of The Transformational Power of Fasting, writes, “In order to be truly transformed, you must first empty yourself.”
Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.