Theology and history of fasting
March 9, 2017 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Theologically well versed of MeFi: can you please enlighten me about the place of fasting in different religions? For example, I recall some differences between islamic and christian practice but nothing properly explained. Moreover didn't really find a "definitive" handbook of the topic, and I usually feel safe learning about a subject if I have a couple of these books at hand.

One addition to the above perhaps is that I'm happy reading anthropological / sociological and historical studies about fasting in general, not just about it's place in religion. Moreover I'd love to hear about the practice of non-abrahamic religions, as my knowledge of their practice is sadly limited.
posted by kmt to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
For Christianity, I find that the chapter on Fasting in Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster offers a wonderful (if dense) overview of the topic. The chapter is about 15 pages and covers both spiritual and practical concerns.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:33 AM on March 9


There's an interesting Christianity-oriented book centered on fasting available as an ebook: Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
In the period between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, a number of religious women gained widespread veneration and even canonization as saints for their extraordinary devotion to the Christian eucharist, supernatural multiplications of food and drink, and miracles of bodily manipulation, including stigmata and inedia (living without eating). The occurrence of such phenomena sheds much light on the nature of medieval society and medieval religion. It also forms a chapter in the history of women. ...
I own this book though I've lost track of it, and I did find it to be quite readable.
posted by jamjam at 8:48 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]


Not non-Abrahamic, but there is a long tradition of fasting in Judaism and even many otherwise-secular Jews still fast on Yom Kippur. Here is a short article on Chabad on the (Othodox-oriented) rationale for these fasts with more information linked on the different holidays. Someone else might be able to recommend you a print resources on the history and practice of Jewish fast days.
posted by epanalepsis at 9:37 AM on March 9


Baha'is around the world are fasting as we speak - yaay (hungry!) A little summary can be found about it here
posted by speakeasy at 10:13 AM on March 9


An anecdote:

I am a Christian. My wife moved out last February, so when our wedding anniversary came up in June it was a sad day. I decided to fast for the day to focus my mind on God instead of on my own sadness. Every time I felt a hunger pang, I prayed. It really helped me keep my mind on my religious beliefs instead of wallowing in my (temporary) current circumstances.

That's what most Christians I know do when they fast. They use the time to commune with God.
posted by tacodave at 3:49 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


> Baha'is around the world are fasting as we speak

Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute in The Office) blogged about the Baha'i Fast in 2013.
posted by christopherious at 4:22 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


I came here to recommend Holy Feast and Holy Fast but I see it's already been done!
posted by bluebelle at 7:27 PM on March 9


We're in the middle of Lent fasting now, and although my household is really haphazardly fasting, it is a big deal for Orthodox Christians. The entire year is (theoretically) around the twelve Great Feasts, with the church year beginning in September and the biggest feast in Pascha/Easter which comes around March/April. There are some short fasts, but the two most significant ones are the Lent and Nativity/Dormition (starts after the Feast day for when Mary, mother of God (we call her Theotokas) died - slept) Fasts which are a fairly standard forty days. There are I think three others which are variable lengths depending on the calendar dates of other feast days.

We also have Wednesday and Friday fasting which is routine, although often disrupted by local or regional Saint days that take precedence.

My understanding is limited but one of the best explanations I was given was in curtains - that at the start of Lent, the mother of a priest would take down the fancy curtains and put up simple plain ones and that was a single to the household. It's about not going out to parties and events as much as not eating meat and dairy. In the days before (Mardi Gras! We have Meatfare and Cheesefare which is where hot cross buns and Shrove Tuesday come from) you eat and celebrate and meet with friends as much as possible - then during Lent, you are quiet at home with your family, and you eat sparingly and plainly and you take the extra time you have to pray and read Christian books and prepare for Easter or Christmas. Same for Wednesday and Friday or other fasting days. The money you save from not going out or buying expensive food should be given to help others in need.

Then when there's a feast day, you are equally obliged to celebrate and decorate the house. Get some flowers and put up the fancy curtains and make a cake! It's a balance. There are often lots of local customs for each flavour of Orthodoxy too.

I have to keep a very regular diet and am exempted from fasting for medical reasons, but I try to eat boring food for fast days and to cook/buy special treats for feast days. Pre-medical stuff I can say that the tradition of no eggs during Lent means that the custom of getting an egg as your first meal for Lent - those red-dyed eggs - meant that the hard-boiled egg was the most delicious amazing thing you could imagine, starvingly hungry after not eating for 12-16 hours and standing for 4+ hours, no eggs for 40 days - so so good.

You can read lots of guides on fasting and prayer for Orthodox people but it's meant as a spiritual discipline, NOT a diet. So I'm fasting (badly) even though I'm not following the diet guidelines.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:36 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Oh and fasting is taken to mean - you don't eat meat, only fish and wine these days, or strict fast which is no olive oil, no alcohol, no meat or dairy. Monastics and people observing very strict discipline might only eat one meal of very little - an apple and some vegetable soup. Then another day, they would eat a regular meal. Most monastics are vegetarian anyway. There's a rule (I can't remember the name in greek or russian) about not being ostentatious about fasting and so if you are at a work function during Lent and are offered meat and can't politely turn it down, you eat it gratefully, not guiltily or resentfully so as to not make your host feel bad.

Oh and fasting also covers sex (marital, one presumes). That gets stressed way less than the diet side, but sex is also considered to be reserved for feasting days, not fast days.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:41 PM on March 9


Thanks all for the references, I'll look them up/read them!

The money you save from not going out or buying expensive food should be given to help others in need.


This is really interesting dorothyisunderwood! Do you know any reading on the social aspects of fasting in Orthodoxy? I remember reading somewhere that in Islam, the main point of ramadan is to experience what the poor and starving feel as a way to build compassion towards them. It's interesting to see something similar in Christianity as well, and I'd love to read more about the roots of this practice.
posted by kmt at 1:05 AM on March 10


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