Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Practice of Fasting

"Dry and Empty"
-a hot summer's day'-

Muslims all over the world are well into their annual observance of the month of Ramadan, a "30- day" period of "fasting" -no food and drink from sunrise to sunset. 

My guess is that many Westerners (especially Americans) have little or no interest in the meaning or purpose of Ramadan.  After all, Muslims are generally viewed with suspicion in this country, besides which we live in a food culture of "all you can eat" menus and "super-sized" meals.  So, the idea of spending an entire month fasting from food and drink may seem rather odd and esoteric to many people. 

Over the past few years I have really come to appreciate what the month of Ramadan is all about. In conversations with my Muslim friends and colleagues, I have learned an important lesson of the value of "fasting"-- a most helpful spiritual discipline that you don't have to be a Muslim to practice.   

Growing up as a boy in the Christian tradition, I was not totally unfamiliar with the practice of "fasting."  When Lent would come around, we were told to give up some favorite treat like candy or soda, and we didn't eat meat on Friday.  But, in all honesty, this type of fasting was actually quite trivial.  And, at least in my experiences, fasting was viewed as a type of self-punishment- depriving your body of something you enjoyed was somehow "pleasing to God."

Fasting from morning until night for an entire month is hardly trivial. Yet Muslims willingly embrace this arduous discipline not to punish themselves but to "open" themselves. The month-long Ramadan fast is a disciplined and intentional act of being "emptied out in order to be filled up."   

Yesterday I came across a poem-prayer from the Islamic tradition that, for me, wonderfully and succinctly captures the essence of "fasting" during this month of Ramadan:

There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes.
When the sound box is filled, no music can come forth.
When the brain and belly burn from fasting,
every moment a new song rises out of the fire.
The mists clear, 
and a new vitality makes you spring up the steps before you.

The word "ramadan"comes from the Arabic word for "scorching heat or dryness." Today it's going to be 112 degrees in the desert where I live; and at this time of the year the wilderness seems more empty than ever.  All the wild flowers are gone and the lush spring blossoms have vanished from the desert floor - just miles and miles of endless sandy soil and towering stoney mountains.  

Most people head out of town this time of year - seeking out lush green resorts with "all you can eat" menus. I, on the other hand, wouldn't even think of leaving town - this season of emptiness and dryness is a sacred gift for me. It is my time of "ramadan" -  a season of "scorching heat and dryness," a sacred time to help me to empty out more and more of my own sense of self importance, to be emptied of my easy answers and lofty plans.  And out of the emptiness, a "new song rises from the fire." 

 When the box is filled no music can come forth.

I am grateful for the powerful and wise spiritual lesson my Muslim sisters and brothers teach me. I stand together with them in this holy month and wish them peace and blessing in their days of fasting. 


  1. Thank you for explaining the importance of "Ramadan" to its meaning to Muslims. Sacrifice has always been rewarding, yet many will never understand. Awesome post!