A FEW years ago, I was driving with some young Muslims in their
car through the streets of south London. It was early evening
during Ramadan. After checking the time, they pulled over to the
side of the road. One produced a box of dates, and another a bottle
of water. It was time for the ritual ending of the day's fast.
These young men had been without food or drink for more than 15
hours. In that time they had done a full day's work. They had
watched others eating, but they themselves had kept strictly to the
rules of the Islamic month of abstinence. I remember thinking how
half-hearted the Christian fast of Lent had become by contrast.
For Muslims, fasting is the fourth "pillar" of their faith. It
is obligatory, and also spiritually advantageous, in that it
enables believers to "guard against evil", and to "develop
God-consciousness". For Christians, gluttony is condemned, but
fasting, although highly recommended, is not compulsory.
At one time, food and the rhythm of the Christian year were
intertwined. Fasts were marked by spiritual solemnity, and frugal
living; feast days were both spiritual celebrations and times of
good eating. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of unrestricted eating
before the Lenten fast. Christians bade farewell to meat: carne
vale. The day became known as Fat Tuesday - "Mardi Gras".
There was merriment before sobriety; but the Church taught that it
was also a day for confession, so that the faithful could enter
suitably "shriven" - penitent, and absolved - into the period of
Once, superfluities and corresponding shortages of food made
following the church calendar a practical necessity. Today, in the
Western world, we have overcome the problems associated with
seasonal gluts of food followed by shortages, so that, for most of
us (cosmetic considerations apart), fasting is now an exclusively
Some people seek special spiritual merit in the asceticism of
extreme abstinence. There are stories of mystics who have shunned
food for years, and saints who have reportedly survived on nothing
but the communion host.
The side-effects of starvation are both physical and mental.
Extreme fasting may produce hallucinations, or, in a religious
context, visions. Christ prepared for his ministry through fasting,
during which he experienced the three temptations in the form of
Although Jesus rebuked the tempter with the words "man cannot
live by bread alone," it should be noted that he never said "man
can survive without food." While fasting can be a practice done in
imitation of Christ, he made sure that the crowds that came to
listen to him did not go hungry.
For the believer, what is eaten, and how it is consumed, becomes
integrated into the religious life. In Judaism, for instance,
religious identity is expressed and emphasised through food. And,
if feasting creates fellowship, so, in its own way, does fasting.
"There is nothing like being in a Muslim country during Ramadan. .
. no ritual, no sense of solidarity to rival it. . . knowing that
everyone is abstaining," a Muslim acquaintance once told me.
Fasting tests personal resolve; it heightens appreciation of
food, and reminds the abstainer that food is ultimately a gift from
God and not to be taken for granted. Abba Poemen, a fifth-century
Desert Father, taught that fasting led to a righteous fear of God.
"How can we gain the fear of God when we have bellies full of
cheese and jars of salted fish?" he asked.
Spiritually, it can be argued that we are not simply what we
eat: we are also shaped by how we eat. If we eat with
gratitude, if we share food, and we eat in fellowship with others,
then our souls are nourished as well as our bodies. These
principles, of course, lie at the heart of the eucharist.
Arguably, the secularisation of the West can be observed in our
eating patterns. Eating is increasingly done in isolation. Many
families no longer have a dining table.
In medieval times, Lenten practice grew out of necessity. The
legacy of the Lenten fast lingers in the idea of "giving something
up" for Lent; but Lent also offers a time to reflect on our
lifestyles, and to review in depth what we eat, how we eat, and how
we share the food that is available.
In reviewing our diet, we are led on to examine ourselves, and
our relationships with others. St John Chrysostom said: "Let the
mouth also fast from disgraceful speech. For what does it profit if
we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour the brothers
Ted Harrison is a former BBC Religious Affairs