Bahai News - Shedding Lard for The Lord
Shedding Lard for The Lord: Religious leaders say they can't
recall a time when fasting has been so widely practiced
B. STAMMER And MARGARET RAMIREZ
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES -- To feel good and
look good, Americans spend millions each year on everything from tummy
tucks to health club memberships.
Through it all, the mantra is exercise and
Now, with the Christian penitential season of
Lent fast approaching, millions of the faithful are preparing to go on a
diet for God.
The goal is not to lose weight or to indulge
one's vanity but to practice a spiritual discipline -- one that
believers say sharpens their awareness of God and God's purpose in their
lives. It's called fasting.
"We see in the natural sense those who want to
fast just to get their weight down," said Sister Mary Colombiere of the
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic women's
religious order in Alhambra.
"There's a kind of supernatural fasting, too,
so that we can become self-disciplined and rise above the natural to
live the supernatural life."
Lent began with this week's observance of Ash
Wednesday for Western liturgical churches, including the Roman Catholic,
Episcopal and Lutheran churches. Eastern Orthodox churches begin their
40-day "Great Lent" March 13, known as "Clean Monday," because believers
abstain from eating meat, poultry, fish or dairy products.
Fasting is a widespread religious phenomenon.
Indeed, religious leaders say they can't recall a time in contemporary
history when fasting has been so widely practiced.
Last week, for example, members of the Bahai
faith began fasting to take their mind away from the physical world and
concentrate on spiritual awareness. While the Bahai have no fixed
rituals or sacraments, all members are expected to participate in a
19-day fast before the feast of Naw-Ruz, which is the religion's New
Year celebration. This year's fast ends March 21.
Hindus, many of whom currently maintain a fast
for Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction, also see fasting as a key to
focusing on the divine. The Hindi word for fasting, "upavasa," means
"sitting near" the divinity.
"Fasting has a way of neutralizing or
minimizing chaos in the body," said Lina Gupta, associate professor of
philosophy and religion at Glendale Community College and an authority
on Hinduism. Instead of focusing on food, "Your whole body would assist
you in going in that spiritual direction."
Among Jews, 53 percent nationwide attend
services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, according to a Los Angeles
Times poll conducted in 1998. Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire
Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles said he believes a growing number are
participating in the traditional Yom Kippur fast.
"There's a deeper sense that fasting has some
real meaning if it's attached to the notion of giving up for a day all
of those material things that claw at us, including our appetites,"
Usually associated with churches that observe a
liturgical calendar -- Jews on Yom Kippur and Muslims during their holy
month of Ramadan, in addition to Christians at Lent -- fasting is coming
into vogue among evangelical Protestants as well. Last year, for
example, the National Association of Evangelicals called for 40 days of
fasting and prayer by 30 million members of the association's member
In one large demonstration of fasting and
prayer, 2 million Protestants from more than 40 countries last November
joined in a worldwide 24-hour fast, according to Campus Crusade for
Christ, which led the event.
Opinions vary as to why the number of those who
fast is growing among evangelical Protestants. Clearly there is a
concern for the moral direction of the country, said Bill Bright,
founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. Evangelicals are
mindful of the scriptural injunction found in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my
people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face,
and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will
forgive their sin and heal their land." Rapturous experiences are
reported by some who fast. Immersed in what they believe to be God's
presence and overcome by a sense of well-being, they report a feeling of
peace and unity that passes understanding.
"Something wonderful happens," Bright said.
Bright, 78, has fasted 40 days for each of the past six years, drinking
only juice, along with vitamin and mineral supplements. He cautioned
that those considering a fast begin slowly and first consult their
When he fasts, Bright said that he has a sense
of entering into "protracted communion" with the God of the universe.
"Witnessing doesn't do it. Reading the Bible
doesn't do it. Prayer in general doesn't do it," said Bright. The
experience, he said, is "spiritually revolutionary."
Of course, Bright and other religious leaders
caution that one's motive for fasting must be to seek God alone, not
simply to have a spiritual high.
Seeking God alone is a tradition and spiritual
exercise many thousands of years old. Christian Scripture recounts that
Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness to gird himself for his earthly
"Our whole life is a walk toward our Lord, that
union with God in eternity," said Colombiere of the Carmelite Sisters.
"He is the first one that we seek and it is for him that we live."
Fasting can mean more than giving up food, said
Michael Mata, director of the Urban Leadership Institute in Los Angeles.
He said "it has evolved to take on new nuances like fasting from
television or going to the ball game. Giving up some activity and doing
prayer or meditation, anything that helps center yourself to God."
©Copyright 2000, The Salt Lake Tribune
Page last updated/revised 031100
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