Once a year, Baha’is and friends of the Baha’i Faith around the world fast, refraining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset for 19 days to draw themselves closer to God and their own souls.
I have looked forward to the Baha’i 19-day-Fast since my first fast when I was 15 years old. But when I contracted a rare autoimmune disease in my early 40’s, and subsequently twice received cancer diagnoses, I was forced to give up fasting. The Baha’i teachings make exceptions to the Fast for anyone in my position – those who are sick, pregnant, nursing, traveling or elderly are exempt from the physical Fast:
We have commanded you to pray and fast from the beginning of maturity [15 years]; this is ordained by God, your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers … The traveler, the ailing, those who are with child or giving suck, are not bound by the fast … Abstain from food and drink, from sunrise to sundown, and beware lest desire deprive you of this grace that is appointed in the Book. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers
However, the Baha’i teachings also say that those who cannot fast physically may still keep the Fast spiritually.
For me personally, this means that I can still consciously strive throughout the day to keep my thoughts pure, my deeds noble, and my intentions worthy. Reinvigoration of the soul is really the spiritual meaning and purpose for the Fast. To refrain from eating and drinking is an outward symbol of inner consciousness and devotion to God.
So how do I strive to keep the Baha’i Fast, given my physical limitations? For me, it takes a much more deliberate attitude. When I used to physically fast, I had many reminders during the day because my body was uncomfortable. I would go to eat something, stop, and remember that I was fasting – and why. Now I have to prompt myself to stop, remember God, and keep myself in the spirit of the Fast throughout the day. I try to eat only 2 meals and when I do so, I do not linger, remembering all those around the world who are fasting. I say dawn and sunset prayers, think good thoughts, detach as much as possible from the material world, and focus on loving virtues as my goals for a spiritual fast:
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-Baha, Paris Talks
Admittedly, it is much easier to eat and drink during the Fast, yet I can’t say I’ve managed to replicate the ecstasy of my early years of being able to physically fast. I still feel connected to the rest of the world that observes the Fast – I sense that magic in the air, but not with the same intensity. There is just something about going through the thirst and hunger of the Fast that makes me take more notice and appreciation of God’s bounties. For example, I could compare it to having my children.
When I gave birth to my son, Anthony, I didn’t want to feel the pain, so I had an epidural. The delivery was peaceful, calm, and easy with no drama. It was a beautiful experience.
I chose, however to have my daughter Julia without drugs. Living far away in New Zealand at the time, I remember wanting the birth experience to be as natural as possible. Thirteen hours of painful “back labor” wasn’t fun. The hours seemed to drag on and on, but I can tell you that when she was finally born, it was the happiest moment of my life. A tidal wave of joy was my reward. I felt like I was on the ceiling looking down at Julia. In an instant the long hours of pain vanished. Partially a flood of birth hormones kicking in and part spiritual rapture, I felt powerfully connected to my daughter, to my purpose, and to God.
Both birth experiences were wonderful, but they differed in their intensity. However, in both cases, the magic of birth was the outcome – just as spiritual birth is the outcome of observing the Fast. Whether you are able to keep the Fast physically is not as important as keeping it in your heart spiritually:
… this material fast is an outer token of the spiritual fast; it is a symbol of self-restraint, the withholding of oneself from all appetites of the self, taking on the characteristics of the spirit, being carried away by the breathings of heaven and catching fire from the love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha
During this 19-day Baha’i month – the last month in the Baha’i calendar before the Baha’i New Year on the vernal equinox – Baha’is around the world will unite to fast, physically and spiritually, from sunrise to sunset. Every hour of these days feel as though endowed with a special virtue. Take note, because during this magical time, the air will be enchanted, the energy mystical, and the portals of God’s tender mercy opened. In any capacity that speaks to you – feel free to join us!