Breaking Fasts, Breaking Bread

WTB members and guests sat down at tables with lovely tablecloths and a variety of foods. Knowing that the topic was fasting and breaking fasts, a few women had fasted before this gathering.

Gay Montague explained that WTB began as an expression of compassion after 9/11 when our co-founder, Betsy Wiggins, reached out to the Muslim community. She connected with Danya Wellmon and they began a conversation that continues today. This particular WTB meeting was one of more than 200 worldwide celebrations of the Charter for Compassion, the initiative of Karen Armstrong, a noted historian of religion. She recognized that compassion is the foundation of all world religions and is what connects us at the deepest human level.

The Charter is a carefully crafted document with contributions from faith traditions worldwide. It was announced to the world at a Peace Summit on September 27 held in Vancouver, and was attended by the Dalai Llama and Archbishop Tutu. The Charter of Compassion focuses on the Golden Rule, a central tenet of faiths worldwide. One hundred and fifteen organizations worldwide have partnered with the Charter; WTB is the only CNY partner. Judy Antoine then played meditative music and read from the Charter.

Our co-founder, Danya Wellmon, then introduced our six speakers who would discuss fasting in their respective faith traditions. The first to speak was Betty Lamb, who explained that her faith journey began with Methodism. She then converted to Catholicism, and has now found a home in Judaism. She described her pilgrimage as “gleaning in God’s field,” and commented that God is flexible, but guidelines for practice are nice. 

Betty explained that there are seven fast days in the Jewish calendar, when healthy individuals over the age of 12 (girls) or 13 (boys) are commanded to refrain from eating. Those days are:

            1. Gedaliah, which occurs the day after Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish liturgical year, a 12-hour fast.

            2. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), nine days after Rosh Hoshana, a 24- to 25-hour fast.  This is the only fast day that is commanded in the Bible (Numbers 29:7) and the most important of the fasting days.

            3. Tevet, which commemorates the siege of Jerusalem in 588 B.C. E., a 12-hour fast.

            4. The fast of Esther (the day before Purim), which celebrates an event in the eighth century B.C.E. that prevented the destruction of all Jews, a 12-hour fast.

            5. Passover, which commemorates the protection of the Jewish people from the plagues visited on Egypt and is a fast from wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats, a seven -or eight-day fast.

            6. Tammuz, which commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, an 18-hour fast

            7. Tisha B’Av, which remembers the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies, a 24- to 25- hour fast

During the three weeks between the last two fast dates, no festivals or weddings may occur, as it is a time of reflection, preparing for the New Year.

However, more important than any of these specific dates is the Sabbath, a weekly Friday evening through Saturday observance that involves fasting from cooking (though not from eating), use of appliances (even lights), and all forms of work. This is the day that God rested, so it is a day of rest from work and varies with the observers’ cultural and religious tradition.

Fasts are typically broken with bread and wine, followed by a meal that starts a festival.  Betty read two blessings, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe who creates fruit of the vine,” and “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” On our tables were plates of challah bread and grape juice, which we were invited to sample.

Our second speaker was Saro Kumar who discussed her Hindu tradition of fasting. She remembered that as a child, she didn’t think her elders were very compassionate, at least in terms of fasting! To begin a fast, they gave her a bitter liquid derived from the leaves of a tree which had antibacterial properties to cleanse the digestive system. Castor oil was also taken. Fasting started as part of the medical practice of ayurveda to remove toxins. 

This fast cleansed the temple of the body, and became associated with spirituality. The fast was broken by drinking lemonade because the acidity was considered good for the body, then followed by bland simple foods, perhaps with no salt, according to the individual’s typical diet. For the fast, meat eaters would refrain from meat and vegetarians would refrain from grains.  Refraining from food creates Dharma, which in the Hindu tradition basically means good karma arising from good actions.

It is common for Hindus to fast on Fridays.  They deprive themselves, and instead feed the poor and the animal world.  A woman may sweep the ground around her house and create simple or complex designs with rice powder as food for ants.  The days of the full moon and the rising moon are especially auspicious for fasting, and ensure that food nourishes others. 

For every possible virtue, Saro added, there is a Hindu god or goddess. To enlist the help of the appropriate deity, one can fast and pray to the deity, giving up one good to receive another.  What began as a health benefit became a spiritual practice.

Our third speaker was Naima Barbour, a second-generation Muslim. She could smell the food that was waiting for us at our meeting, and said it reminded her of waiting for food when, as a child, her parents required her to fast. Fasting is prescribed in Sura 2:183 so that one may learn God-consciousness. Fasting had been common in the Middle East even before the time of Mohammad, but was not decreed in the Qur’an until the fifteenth year of his prophecies. 

Muslims officially begin fasting at puberty, but illness, being on a journey, menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing provide exceptions.  However, if one is unable to fast at the specified times, one is expected to make the days up when possible.  As an alternative, one can feed the poor so that someone benefits from the time of fasting.

One fasts from food, drink, and sexual activity, things used to satisfy the self, in order to develop consciousness and restraint. One is expected to ask, “How am I treating others?” and become aware of how one treats one’s own body, giving it the right foods.  It is not a holiday, even though communal meals to break the fast are common. During this time one is expected to give more and pray more.

Fasting occurs during the Islamic month of Ramadan and lasts during daylight hours.  Because this is a lunar calendar, the months vary in season each year, so that Ramadan rotates throughout the year. Naima laughingly recalled that her first year of official fasting at age 13 occurred in July, so she was required get up before dawn to eat, and then to fast from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., a requirement that she did not consider compassionate!  However since Naima has been pregnant three times and nursed each baby, she said it would take her a very long time to make up for the months of fasting she has missed. However, various charities have gotten a lot of food from Naima to make up for her missed fasts!

The traditional foods for breaking fasts are dates and water, followed by evening prayer, then a meal. On our tables were pitchers of water and cups, and a large bowl of dates, and when Naima finished speaking we all were invited to partake.

Our fourth speaker was Stephany Richardson, who presented the Christian perspective on fasting. Stephany was raised Roman Catholic and explained fasting in that tradition. She said that after she agreed to speak on this topic, she did some research and found that there were at least 78 references to fasting in the Christian Bible, which includes the Jewish Bible plus the Christian New Testament. This indicates how important and how central fasting should be. Because she has practiced fasting in her own life, she feels it is beneficial, but noted it is neglected in much of Christian practice. She believes that as people are more educated on what fasting is and isn’t, that more they may reap the benefits and make it a part of their practice of faith. It’s not starving yourself to death, nor roaming around in sackcloth and ashes

Stephany’s first recollections of any kind of fasting were the meatless Ash Wednesdays and the meatless Fridays during Lent, a period of 40 days when Jesus entered the desert to fast.  Catholics were also asked to give up something as a sacrifice, a penance, as it were. For little kids it was usually candy or something of that sort, and as a kid, she remembered snitching a bit. Also, during Holy Week, in which many churches recall the Last Supper, passion and death of Jesus, fasting from meat, alcohol or sweets was and still is accepted as a means of purifying the heart and mind for the Easter celebration.

As Stephany has grown older and her faith has evolved, fasting has taken on a whole new meaning. When there is a matter of great importance, she will fast and pray for a day or two.  She finds that when her body is clear from some of the junk she puts into it, her spirit is much more receptive to the voice and heart of God. 

Being hypoglycemic, she needs to be careful about how strictly she fasts, as it could cause more harm than good if not done with some safeguards. She will take her medications as usual, have one cup of coffee, and have juice, water and broth the rest of the time. She will eat a very light meal at the end of the day to replenish her energy, or when she believes the Lord is leading her to end the fast. 

During the fast, Stephany keeps her schedule loose, and eliminates Facebook, Internet, phone, and TV. She meditates, and quiets her mind by repeating a religious phrase as a mantra.  She feels that during meditation, impurities will work their way out, like soup boiling; the distracting thoughts and emotions will rise to the surface and dissipate. She tries not to judge the thoughts and emotions that occur. After that, Stephany’s mind and heart are clear to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to get a sense of where He is leading her. During a fast, some Scriptures may take on a new and enlightened meaning, and Stephany can be surprised by the Spirit during the time of fast.

In closing, Stephany read some Scriptures about fasting that resonate with her:

Isaiah 58:6-8. “Is not the kind of fasting I have chosen, to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter… when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from our own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear.”

And Micah 6:6-8 (a slight paraphrase): With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? … will the Lord be pleased with my fasts, with not watching TV, not eating sweets or not going on Facebook for a week? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgressions, or even my second born? Shall I not buy that outfit I’ve always wanted? He has showed you, O man (and woman!) what is good… and what does the Lord require of you… to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  

Our next speaker was Tori DeAngelis, a former Catholic who has found her way in Buddhism.  She says nature has become a big source of spiritual inspiration for her, and that caring for others is an important focus. When she lived in Washington D.C., she regularly attended the Shambhala Center, a center for Buddhists and lay people to study the Tibetan tradition. The Center offered weekend retreats and she participated in those and became adjusted to the practice of meditation. She agreed with Stephany that in the practice of meditation she watches her mind without judgment.

Buddha had a difficult path to achieve Enlightenment, and fasting was one of the tools he used on his journey to consciousness. He had been eating one grain of rice and one sesame seed each day and became weak and unable to meditate. A young girl fed him, giving him the strength to meditate for 49 days, thus leading to his Enlightenment. He embraced the middle way, a path of moderation, one filled with awareness of the world, but no extremes.

Later, Buddha is said to have passed a man on the road. The man was impressed with the Buddha’s radiant presence and peacefulness, and asked, “My friend, what are you?  Are you a celestial being or a god?” The Buddha responded, “No, I am not.” “Well then, are you a magician or a wizard?” “No.” “Well then, are you a Man?” Again, “No.” “Well what are you then?” “I am awake!” 

Consciousness, being present, coming to understand ourselves – that we are part of a great whole rather than a single, egoic being – is the essence of the Buddhist tradition.

Although fasting is never required in Buddhism, in the monastic tradition it assists in meditation, purifying the body and reducing attachments. It is one of 13 ascetic practices meant to “shake up” or “invigorate” practitioners. Fasting is cleansing, and afterward helps us more fully recognize the gifts of the universe. Fasting and the practice of mindful eating can foster appreciation for all those who grow, harvest, transport, and prepare our food. 

In conclusion, Tori read a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh called “Before We Eat,” and asked us to take any food item from the table and eat it mindfully, noticing and appreciating what went into it – the soil, the sun, the air, the labor – and to be grateful for the nourishment.

Our final speaker was Mary Roderick, who explained her Baha’i experience of fasting.  It has much in common with Islam, but significant differences as well. There is a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, but Baha’i months are only 19 days long. Also, the Baha’i calendar does not cycle through the years as the Islamic calendar does, so Baha’i fasting always occurs before the spring equinox in March, when there are no long days. The pre-dawn and after-dusk meals vary with the local culture, so the only stricture is not to overdo. Individuals age 15 to 70 in good health are expected to fast, with exemptions for hard labor, being away from home on a trip more than nine hours, pregnancy, nursing, menstruation, etc. 

Mary stressed that fasting is not just physical.  It should also include the spiritual, with meditation, prayer, and making readjustments in one’s life. One should be abstaining from selfish and carnal desires. The intent is more important than the action: It is possible to think you’ve fasted, but the intent is not right, so God does not recognize the fast. Conversely, God may think you have fasted when you yourself don’t think you have. 

After this period of fasting and self-reflection, the New Year begins. Mary ended by reading a Baha’i blessing.

After the speakers finished, we were invited to come to the buffet where seven home-made vegetarian soups awaited us, and baskets with a variety of freshly cut breads. Returning to our tables (most of us with more than one soup to try), we began to chat with friends old and new.  Questions concerning compassion were available to start discussions. At one table, discussion was so vigorous that we never got past question two!

All too soon it was time to wrap up the event. Terra distributed several strips of paper containing the following sentiments concerning compassion, and asked the recipients to read them aloud.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong … because some day in life you will have been all of these.” (George Washington Carver)

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” (Albert Einstein)

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence … it can only be attained through understanding.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are true and kind, they can change the world.” (Buddha)

“Compassion is the basis for all morality.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability. It is essential for human survival.” (Dalai Lama)

“The dew of compassion is a tear.” (Lord Byron)