Several years ago, on my first visit to Pakistan I made a big social blunder. A Muslim acquaintance arranged to meet me after breakfast, “at about 8 o’clock”.
I naturally assumed that he meant eight in the morning, but he was talking about breaking-the-fast which Muslims do every evening during the month of Ramadan, abstaining from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset.
I actually knew that but, to tell the truth, I used to consider it only a half-fast compared with the old full-blooded Catholic Lent. But my hasty judgement ended as soon as I tried the Muslim fast myself – just for one day.
Not to eat anything during the hot daylight hours was tough enough but to not even drink a glass of water made the Muslim fast infinitely more difficult than the traditional Catholic fast and abstinence. And pious Muslims fast not only from food and drink but also from anger, envy, greed, gossip and violence – all with a view to gaining increased closeness to Allah/God.
Over the years, the austerity of Catholic Lent has become very diluted. Likewise, the Eucharistic fast which used to apply from the midnight before. Ironically, at the same time, there is a booming popularity of severe fasting diets with names like 5:2 diet, alternate-day fasting, warrior diet, 16/8 method, etc.
They focus on alternative health practices to counter the rampant disorder of obesity. Even without a religious content, these practices can often raise people’s awareness of what it feels like for millions of people to be hungry every day, and maybe inspire some of them to contribute the saved money to a charity for the hungry.
Most religions I know have a system of fasting. Catholic Lent and Islamic Ramadan have many common elements but one big difference between them is that in Catholicism the Lenten fast has become a low-key private practice whereas the Ramadan fast is an essential and public manifestation of the Muslim’s religious identity.
During my years in Korea I learned that while Buddhism does not have a fixed fasting season, Buddhist monks and nuns do not eat after their noon meal. The primary purpose is ascetical, a form of self-control to help them in their practice of Zen meditation.
The importance of vegetarianism in Buddhist monastic life is very well known but even here there are extra restrictions; there is a list of prohibited spices and vegetables like garlic, leeks and onions because they allegedly rouse sexual desire.
The most austere religious fasting laws I have come across are in the Ethiopia where Orthodox Christians fast about 180 days in the year; and the priests observe up to 250 fast days.
As in the case with Ramadan, the Ethiopian Orthodox fast is obligatory; it is not just optional. The fast schedule is totally tied in with the liturgical year and is a proud expression of their communal Christian identity.
There are 55 fast days in preparation for Easter, several fast days in preparation for Christmas and the Epiphany, and 15 days in preparation for the feast of the Assumption, not to mention fasting most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.
On fast days the Ethiopian Christians take no food or drink before noon. Even in the afternoon when they may eat, they often abstain from meat, milk, butter and eggs. All this is the more amazing when we recall that Ethiopia often experiences famines and is very hot. This spirit of asceticism is a bit like that of Irish pilgrims who used to walk to Lough Derg in their bare feet in the years after the Famine, though it was optional, of course.
I got a special insight into Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality when I attended the Sunday Mass. It lasted for nearly three hours and most of it was chanted. Inside the church gate there was a small building called Bethlehem from which the aroma of freshly prepared sacramental bread wafted over the packed church, whetting everyone’s appetite.
An odd feature of the liturgy was that hardly anybody received communion; they felt unworthy. Communion was received by just a few elders (apparently too old to sin) and by the many whimpering infants who were too young to sin.
Everyone fasted until the end of Mass when servers carried around buckets of water for all to drink and so end the fast for that day. The freshly baked bread which was not used for communion was then generally distributed.
In spite of the various attitudes to fasting displayed in different religions, they challenge our attitude to asceticism: whether it is old-fashioned over-the-top tradition or a desirable form of self-discipline necessary for a balanced spiritual life.