Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I'm Kind of in Awe of Fasting

The Velveteen Rabbi is one of my favorite blogs to read because Rachel Barenblatt's introspective representation of her own spiritual journey inspires me to take a closer look at mine (and, if we're being honest, because it makes me picture a velveteen rabbit with tzitzit and tefillin).
Recently, Rachel wrote about "Approaching Av....and Ramadan" and getting ready for the fast and introspective prayer to come. Fasting as a spiritual practice, of course is not limited to Judaism and Islam, but neither is it part of mainstream Christianity.
In  high school, one of my Jewish friends was nervous that she couldn't make it through Yom Kippur, so she talked fasting strategy with her dad. One key to a successful fast, he told her, is to eat lighter on the days ahead, so that the stomach can shrink a bit. The Muslim student in our class bemoaned the challenge of observing Ramadan, though she was happy to be excused from participation in phys ed. I was confused by this foreign (to me) practice.
In college, I had passing contact with Ramadan because of the Kay Spiritual Life Center's shared worship space. We Methodists rearranged some of weekly activities so that the Muslim students could share their evening meal. Because the allocation of time and space at Kay is finely tuned to allow each faith group private use of sacred spaces, this was one of the few times I saw our Muslim friends in fellowship with one another. I could see the community that Ramadan cemented among them, but I still didn't get their holiday.
When I was first teaching, my shadow tutor and one of my students both observed Ramadan. Since the sun set during our evening class two days a week, for that month we had small snacks during the class. And, because the other students and I were curious, Ayrene and Misha talked about their physical and spiritual experiences of fast. I finally started to get it, and I'm in awe of their dedication.
The discipline of fasting is less about the physical experience than about the opportunity for spiritual growth. Time not spent on cooking, eating, and tidying up can be used for prayer. Physical discomfort can be a call to pray without ceasing. Radical fasting marks out a time as other than ordinary. The balance between energy spent on spirituality and energy spent on secular details shifts in favor of the former. My Lenten fasts, prayerfully chosen though they are, pale in comparison to the discipline of fasting for Tish b'Av, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan. I've thought about observing a total fast for a day or a daylight hours fast for a week, but I struggle to incorporate it into Methodist tradition in a meaningful way. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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