As I take part in this special period of the Bahá’í year, and join fellow Bahá’ís around the world in The Fast, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned from fasting over the years. Probably the main thing which comes to mind is that even now, although I’ve been doing it every year for the last 20 years - I’m not getting any better at it.
But perhaps that’s the point. To get better at it would mean that we would potentially miss out on a significant opportunity to put ourselves to the test in order to help ourselves grow and develop into better human beings, which is what we’re encouraged to do as Bahá’ís everyday. Baha’u'llah wrote:
We have enjoined upon you fasting during a brief period… beware lest desire deprive you of this grace that is appointed in the Book.
So, maybe it doesn’t need to get easier, as I don’t want to be deprived of “this grace”.
I heard a joke once which goes “The biggest drawback to fasting for seven days is that it makes one weak.” Haha! Yeah that’s funny, I get it, but in all seriousness becoming weak is the whole point, and fasting is a great opportunity for us to actually exercise and strengthen what I like to call our ‘spiritual muscles’. There’s no point in just thinking and talking about how we need to work on and develop qualities such as ‘detachment’ or ‘humility’ if we’re not able to put ourselves to the test in real, everyday circumstances. Bahá’u’lláh says:
It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 250)
So, when we’re exhausted, thirsty and hungry, it often quickly becomes apparent what shortcomings or attributes we need to work on, and we can look at the fast as a period of time where, for 19 days, we have an opportunity to really rev-up the strengthening of our ‘spiritual muscles’ in a more concentrated and intense way.
I thought it would be interesting to reflect on just four of the ‘spiritual muscles’ (or qualities) the fast has helped me strengthen, and I’m sure many of you can relate to these as well.
Oh yes, there’s no doubt about that! Having to refrain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset, while still carrying on with our daily lives, and making sure we’re up before sunrise everyday to say our prayers and eat can be hard. But as the saying goes ‘no pain, no gain’ right?
Bahá’u’lláh clearly explains:
Even though outwardly the Fast is difficult and toilsome, yet inwardly it is bounty and tranquillity. Purification and training are conditioned and dependent only on such rigorous exercises as are in accord with the Book of God and sanctioned by Divine law… Whatsoever God hath revealed is beloved of the soul. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, XVI)
`Abdu’l-Bahá also explained:
The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most. (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
The Fast definitely helps us practice detachment, and whether your rich or poor, or somewhere in between, attachment is something we are all tested by. `Abdu’l-Bahá explains this in the quote below:
Our greatest efforts must be directed towards detachment from the things of the world; we must strive to become more spiritual, more luminous, to follow the counsel of the Divine Teaching, to serve the cause of unity and true equality, to be merciful, to reflect the love of the Highest on all men, so that the light of the Spirit shall be apparent in all our deeds, to the end that all humanity shall be united, the stormy sea thereof calmed, and all rough waves disappear from off the surface of life’s ocean henceforth unruffled and peaceful. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 87)
And again, `Abdu’l-Bahá expresses the importance of detachment in a prayer:
O God, my God! Fill up for me the cup of detachment from all things, and in the assembly of Thy splendours and bestowals, rejoice me with the wine of loving Thee. Free me from the assaults of passion and desire, break off from me the shackles of this nether world… (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 174)
3. Gratitude and Servitude
Oh how good does it feels to drink some water, and dig into a meal after a day of fasting! Even something you may not normally have much of a taste for, tastes oh so good!
The fast definitely helps us feel a sense of gratitude for what we often take for granted, and it helps us become more compassionate towards those who are without. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
All praise be unto God, Who hath… enjoined on them the Fast that those possessed of means may become apprised of the woes and sufferings of the destitute. (Bahá’u’lláh in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting)
And feeling grateful also has positive consequences, as numerous studies have shown that a sense of gratitude encourages and generates a behaviour of giving. There are also a number of studies which point out that a sense of gratitude even affects our physical health in a positive way. Bahá’u’lláh says:
Blessed is the one who through the heat generated by the Fast increaseth his love, and who, with joy and radiance, ariseth to perform worthy deeds. (Bahá’u’lláh in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting)
The Bahá’í Writings stress the importance of humility:
They who are the beloved of God, in whatever place they gather and whomsoever they may meet, must evince, in their attitude towards God, and in the manner of their celebration of His praise and glory, such humility and submissiveness that every atom of the dust beneath their feet may attest the depth of their devotion. The conversation carried by these holy souls should be informed with such power that these same atoms of dust will be thrilled by its influence. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 7)
In my opinion, by fasting we learn a sense of humility in two major ways:
First of all, fasting reminds us of how vulnerable and weak we are as human beings. Humanity has come so far and has advanced technologically, and in so many other ways. We’ve learnt to try and tame the earth and our environment to serve us, so at times it’s pretty easy to forget the Creator and just how vulnerable we actually are. However, through the fast our vulnerabilities are exposed and it can really bring us to our knees, quickly reminding us of how insignificant and vulnerable we actually are. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 64)
Secondly, at times during the fast, I catch myself slipping into a mental state of mind where I either start to feel sorry for myself, and in a certain sense, I start to see myself as a victim because I can’t eat and drink like all the others can. I also find myself feeling quite the opposite of this at times as well, where I start to pride myself in the fact that ‘I’m so tough’ because I’m refraining from food and drink while all those around me consume it. Pathetic I know, but it gets reinforced when everyone says: “Oh, I don’t know how you do it! I could never do that! You’re really strong!” Both of course go against the spirit of fasting and relate to the ego. Shoghi Effendi explains the ego as being:
…the dark, animalistic heritage each one of us has, the lower nature that can develop into a monster of selfishness, brutality, lust and so on. It is this self we must struggle against, or this side of our natures, in order to strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, December 10, 1947)
So fasting gives us an opportunity to battle the ego and work on strengthening our ‘spiritual muscles’. I know there are many more attributes fasting helps us with, and it would be great to hear about these, and how fasting has helped you personally in this regard, so feel free to share them in the ‘Comments’ section below.
I’ll sign-off by leaving us with this wonderful quote from a prayer by Bahá’u’lláh:
Praised be Thou, O God, my God! These are the days whereon Thou hast enjoined Thy chosen ones, Thy loved ones and Thy servants to observe the Fast, which Thou hast made a light unto the people of Thy kingdom…