Lent is ‘fast’ approaching, and with it, many rituals whose spiritual origins are largely forgotten. Carnival – the word coming from the Latin ‘carne vale’ meaning ‘goodbye meat’, Mardi Gras from French, meaning ‘Fat Tuesday’ and Shrove Tuesday, the word shrove being the past tense of shrive, meaning confession. These and other rituals are very happily retained by whole communities, religious or secular, and all relate to the last feast before the fast of Lent, which commemorates Jesus Christ’s contemplation and fast for forty days and nights in the desert. However, the fast which follows is largely ignored in secular society. It seems we enjoy indulging ourselves, but are not so keen on denying ourselves of pleasure! This is of course no surprise and is completely in tune with human and animal nature. There is also a drive in humans to gather together in feasts and festivals and collective dance and celebration. It seems to give us great support through the struggles of life and fulfil some ancient primeval needs. However, the fasting side of it is a completely different aspect of human culture, although widespread throughout the world. So the question is, ‘why fast?’ Most of the secular revellers in carnivals or those quietly enjoying pancakes, are quite happy to leave fasting out of the equation, although there may be a few days afterwards when the words ‘never again’ drop into their heads! They simply see no value in it and no benefit. So why do so many people around the world take part in fasting? Why do many faiths incorporate fasting into their annual rituals and why do some secular people also fast?
Well, religions arose with our increasing self-awareness and the recognition that we were also part of something much bigger than ourselves. Although we had increasing power to affect the future and change the environment we inhabited, it was also clear there were vastly bigger forces at work, over which, we had no control. These forces could make it difficult for us to find prey, or make crops fail. They could cause diseases and make babies and children die. Personified as gods or deities, they needed appeasing, especially during these times of hardship and hunger. So perhaps during such times, faced with our own mortality, we become more desperate for divine support and salvation. When the gods appease our suffering and bring forth the rain or the animals or the good health, we make future sacrifices by bringing about voluntary hunger through fasting as a reminder to ourselves and to the gods.
As religions and philosophy developed and grew in sophistication, the emphasis became one of our personal relationship with the divine, rather than simple appeasement and sacrifice. This is the era when we began to separate ourselves more and more from the animal world and divide existence into material and spiritual realms. Our desire to eat and reproduce tied us to the animal world and denying these two drives, somehow brought us closer to the divine. We could identify ourselves with the soul, as spiritual beings in the image of God rather than animals striving to survive. Alongside this, the contemplative aspect arose, strongly developed by the Buddha and Jesus. Whilst removing ourselves from temptation and physical needs (quite literally in the case of isolation in the desert), we could focus on our spiritual nature and relationship to the divine or ultimate reality. We could listen to the inner voice, ask deep questions, meditate or pray without distraction and no doubt receive great insights. Added to this many people report the body feeling lighter, the mind clearer, the energy levels higher and the hunger disappearing, and the result is almost a sensation of an altered state of consciousness, which can indeed feel like a spiritual enlightenment or a gift from God. This may, in part at least, be due to the body reacting to a lack of food and beginning to accept the condition as permanent, or effects of malnutrition in the brain, but that is irrelevant to the effects on our consciousness. Obviously, many people, Jesus included, find it life-changing in its results. However, in many parts of the world this dualistic religion, before the Buddha in Hinduism and in later Medieval Christianity, led to extreme forms of asceticism, where the body was punished and ‘animal’ desires were seen as sinful, to be driven out.
When the focus on relationship to the divine and contemplation are added together, we arrive at a practice of purification. By giving up, or attempting to transform our basic animal desires and redefining ourselves as divine beings in a relationship with God or the universe, we are attempting to become purer, ‘better’ individuals, whereby we can serve a higher goal than merely our own survival. This is the point where fasting goes beyond food, and may include giving up anything which we see as distasteful or negative in ourselves. Hence the custom of ‘Shrove Tuesday’, when we can be absolved of the guilt from something in our character or past actions, by giving a confession. It is a time to let go, make vows and move on. And that is where we are with Lent. Even secular people often use it as an excuse to try to give up something they do not like in themselves, such as smoking, drinking, overeating, or a character trait such as idleness or procrastination.
I can see many benefits in fasting (although I do not starve myself, I may give up something), even political ones; for example the possibility of increasing our empathy with those who remain permanently hungry and starving in the world. They are no doubt, too busy concentrating on their instincts for survival and the struggle to find food to contemplate the divine or anything else. The causes for this nowadays are very often forces within our control, such as wars and government exploitation rather than natural disasters and famines, and as a species, we really can do better!
So, enjoy your pancakes or the party, but at least have a think afterwards of what you would like to improve in yourself, and see if you can make it happen. Then, when Easter comes you can really celebrate the death of the old you and be reborn as a new person. Perhaps the old desire, which you gave up for Lent will have gone forever and you will be a little bit liberated and a little bit wiser.
As a footnote, I would like to add that fasting can be dangerous and should not be taken to extremes or undertaken by anybody with underlying health conditions, without first consulting a doctor. I personally believe that the body and animals are as much a part of the divine as anything else and should be treated with the greatest degree of care, love and respect.