Baha'i News -- Winter fast helps Bahais fill their spiritual hunger

Winter fast helps Bahais fill their spiritual hunger

19-day ritual leads to faith's New Year

By Rudolph Bush
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 15, 2002

In the living room window the sky was fading to a dark blue, and it was nearly time to break the fast.

Five people who had not had a bite since sunrise sat and prayed as the smell of soup warming on the stove moved through the house.

Then a bell rang in the kitchen and it was time to eat.

For members of the Bahai faith, like those who gathered in Lee Tesdahl's home on a recent Tuesday evening, March 2 to 20 is a time of strict fasting and prayer before their New Year.

Throughout those 19 days, which mark the month of Loftiness in their calendar, Bahais in good health who are 15 and older do not eat anything or drink so much as water between sunrise and sunset. When the sun sets, they often gather for special prayers and a meal.

Around Tesdahl's dining room table, the Bahais broke the fast over Chinese food and spoke about the importance of fasting in their lives and faith.

"The fast is an outward symbol for a commitment to try and build a relationship with God," said Misha Maynerick, 24, an artist who converted to Bahaism two years ago. "It's a time to reflect on what I'm doing to enhance that relationship in my life."

Like Lent for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims, the Bahai fast is meant to focus a person's thoughts on God and one's spiritual life, said Addison Bibb, a secretary in the Chicago spiritual assembly of Bahais.

"When you're not eating, you think a lot," said Bibb, 36. "The time of sacrifice and reflection is in preparation for the New Year."

Bahais also use the fast to consider their faith, which demands members independently investigate its laws and beliefs.

Called Naw-Ruz, the New Year begins March 21 and corresponds with the first day of spring.

Less than 160 years old, the Bahai religion originated in Iran with the teachings of a spiritual leader called the Bab. In his writings, the Bab explained that a greater leader would soon follow, in much the same way that John the Baptist foretold the coming of Christ.

Bahais believe the Bab's prophecy was fulfilled in 1863, when a man known as Baha'u'llah announced he was the manifestation of God.

The writings and teachings of Baha'u'llah and the Bab became the basis of the Bahai faith, which claims some 6 million members worldwide. Local members estimate there are about 3,000 Bahais in Illinois, many of whom worship at the ornate temple in Wilmette.

The major tenets of the faith include a belief in one God and a deep commitment to the equality of all people. Bahais reject divisions between religions and between religion and science. They promote a universal language and look forward to a time when extreme wealth and poverty are eliminated.

Under Bahai law, members are required to fast once a year as well as abstain at all times from alcohol, illicit drugs and premarital sex.

But the fast is not a punishment. Nor is it difficult if a person approaches it with the right attitude, many Bahais say.

"One of the things I look forward to is being able to participate in the fast," said Reggie Baskin, 63. "After the fast, people seem to be more intuitive, spiritual. Something happens to the person."

What is happening, Bahais believe, is a deepening of a person's spiritual sense that will offer aid in the afterlife.

But not everyone may truly receive the benefits of the fast, said Rebecca Ellison, 31.

"If someone were to obey the fast, but wasn't oriented spiritually toward it, that person could be considered [not to have fasted at all]," she said. "But someone who broke the fast but had the right attitude could be considered to have fasted."

Bahais aren't supposed to judge others and backbiting is considered a great sin, so if they see another Bahai eating during the fast, they try to think nothing of it, Maynerick said.

What they focus on instead is their own lives, she said.

"In this very materialistic society, the fast is here to remind you that you have this spiritual nature. Going a full day without food, it changes your mind-set," she said.

©Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

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