Yesterday a friend of mine asked me if we could have lunch together. “Can we postpone it a few weeks?” I asked. “I’m skipping lunch today to pray.”
I saw a look of puzzlement in his eyes as I spoke. During this time each year, I explained to him—the 19 days just before the vernal equinox—Baha’is voluntarily refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours. Instead, I planned to spend my lunch hour meditating and praying, having a spiritual repast rather than a physical one.
“Wow,” he said, obviously surprised. “That’s different.”
“Not really,” I said. “Most of the major religions have a fasting period each year. For Christians it’s the Lenten season, for Jews it’s Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur, Muslims fast during Ramadan, Hindus during Maha Shivaratri and Navratri.
“For me, it’s the Baha’i Fast,” I told my friend, “which focuses on the inner life of the human spirit.”
Baha’is fast, I explained, primarily for the spiritual benefits fasting confers:
… this physical fast is a symbol of the spiritual fast. This Fast leadeth to the cleansing of the soul from all selfish desires, the acquisition of spiritual attributes, attraction to the breezes of the All-Merciful, and enkindlement with the fire of divine love. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, # XXVI.
After we talked about it for a while, my friend wanted to know: what happens to the human spirit when the body goes without food or drink for twelve hours each day? I explained that the Baha’i teachings say it centers our attention on the higher realities:
Thou seest, O God of Mercy, Thou Whose power pervadeth all created things, these servants of Thine, Thy thralls, who, according to the good-pleasure of Thy Will, observe in the daytime the fast prescribed by Thee, who arise, at the earliest dawn of day, to make mention of Thy Name, and to celebrate Thy praise, in the hope of obtaining their share of the goodly things that are treasured up within the treasuries of Thy grace and bounty. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 299.
Fasting doesn’t just mean abstaining from eating and drinking, but it encourages and makes room for extra meditation and prayer, for reflection and rejuvenation. The Baha’i Fast allows for a period of spiritual recuperation, for refreshing and reinvigorating the soul:
Fasting is the cause of awakening man. The heart becomes tender and the spirituality of man increases. This is produced by the fact that man’s thoughts will be confined to the commemoration of God, and through this awakening and stimulation surely ideal advancements follow. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 305.
“When they fast,” I said, “Baha’is take the extra time they would normally use for preparing and eating a mid-day meal to nourish and refresh their souls with reflection, meditation and prayer.”
Fasting allows each person to think back on the entire year and ask themselves: what can I do in this coming year to make my life and the lives of others better? How can I be of service to humanity? In other words, it lets the spirit rise above the mundane aspects of daily life and “associate with the Fragrances of Holiness:”
O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions and animal traits. Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention. – Ibid.
Fasting sharpens spiritual discernment, brings the soul closer to God’s will for our lives, and increases inner happiness and joy:
These are the days whereon Thou hast bidden all men to observe the fast, that through it they may purify their souls and rid themselves of all attachment to any one but Thee, and that out of their hearts may ascend that which will be worthy of the court of Thy majesty and may well beseem the seat of the revelation of Thy oneness. Grant, O my Lord, that this fast may become a river of life-giving waters and may yield the virtue wherewith Thou hast endowed it. – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 79.
My friend asked “So is it hard, this fast?”
I tried to explain: “For some people, yes. It’s not easy to detach, even temporarily, from our habits, from sustenance, from food and drink. But it has major advantages, too.”
When done in a spirit of detachment from this physical reality, fasting can definitely purify our souls and help us separate ourselves from the material world. However, that doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Sometimes, and for some people, the initial days of going without food or drink when the sun is up may seem difficult. But for most, after those first few days of bodily acclimation to a little hunger and thirst, something new happens—a fresh energy arrives, along with a heightened awareness of the inner spirit we all possess and the realization of our immortality:
The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought, whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of nonexistence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever-living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation. He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 89.