Dieting for God
Saturday, March 4, 2000
Fasting as a Spiritual Experience, Not as a Fashion Statement, Draws
Growing Numbers of Adherents
By LARRY B. STAMMER, MARGARET RAMIREZ, Times Staff Writers
To feel good and look good, Americans
spend millions each year on everything from tummy tucks to health club
Through it all the mantra is exercise
Now, with the Christian penitential
season of Lent fast approaching,
millions of the faithful are preparing to go on a diet for God.
The goal is not to lose weight or to
indulge one's vanity but to practice a spiritual discipline--one that
believers say sharpens their awareness of God and God's purpose in their
lives. It's called fasting.
"We see in the natural sense those who
want to fast just to get their weight down," said Sister Mary Colombiere
of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic women's
religious order in Alhambra.
"There's a kind of supernatural fasting,
too, so that we can become self-disciplined and rise above the natural to
live the supernatural life."
Lent begins with next week's observance
of Ash Wednesday for Western liturgical churches, including the Roman
Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. Eastern Orthodox churches begin
their 40 day "Great Lent" on March 13, known as "Clean Monday," because
believers abstain from eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy products.
Fasting is a widespread religious
phenomenon. Indeed, religious leaders say they can't recall a time in
contemporary history when fasting has been so widely practiced.
This week, for example, members of the
Bahai faith began fasting to take their minds away from the physical world
and concentrate on spiritual awareness. While the Bahai have no fixed
rituals or sacraments, all members are expected to participate in a 19-day
fast before the feast of Naw-Ruz, which is the religion's New Year
celebration. This year's fast ends March 21.
Hindus, many of whom currently maintain
a fast for Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction, also see fasting as a
key to focusing on the divine. The Hindi word for fasting, upavasa, means
"sitting near" the divinity.
"Fasting has a way of neutralizing or
minimizing chaos in the body," said Lina Gupta, associate professor of
philosophy and religion at Glendale Community College and an authority on
Hinduism. Instead of focusing on food, "Your whole body would assist you in
going in that spiritual direction."
Among Jews, 53% nationwide attend services
on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, according to a Los Angeles Times poll
conducted in 1998. Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple
said he believes a growing number are participating in the traditional
Yom Kippur fast.
"There's a deeper sense that fasting
has some real meaning if it's attached to the notion of giving up for a
day all of those material things that claw at us, including our appetites,"
Usually associated with faiths that
observe a liturgical calendar--Jews on Yom Kippur and Muslims during
their holy month of Ramadan, in addition to Christians at Lent--fasting
is fast coming into vogue among evangelical Protestants as well. Last
year, for example, the National Assn. of Evangelicals called for 40 days
of fasting and prayer by 30 million members of the association's member
In one large demonstration of fasting
and prayer, 2 million Protestants from more than 40 countries last November
joined in a worldwide 24-hour fast, according to Campus Crusade for Christ,
which led the event.
Opinions vary as to why the number of
those who fast is growing among evangelical Protestants. Clearly there
is a concern for the moral direction of the country, Bright said.
Evangelicals are mindful of the scriptural injunction found in 2
Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name humble
themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I
will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
Others say evangelicals, whose worship
services can seem austere, may yearn for a more tactile and traditional
expression of an inward search for holiness.
"When the Scripture says to love the
Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and strength, often we
Christians may pray while we are comfortable sitting in a plush chair with
one hand on a Diet Coke and the other in a bag of peanuts," said the Rev.
Kevin W. Mannoia, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. "The
virtue of going without food or other things somehow moves God to do i
Rapturous experiences are reported by
some who fast. Immersed in what they believe to be God's presence and
overcome by a sense of well-being, they report a feeling of peace and
unity that passes understanding.
"Something wonderful happens," said
Bill Bright, founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright,
78, has fasted 40 days for each of the past six years, drinking only
juice and taking vitamin and mineral supplements. He cautioned that those
considering a fast should begin slowly, and first consult their physician.
When he fasts, Bright said that he has
a sense of entering into "protracted communion" with the God of the universe.
"Witnessing doesn't do it. Reading the
Bible doesn't do it. Prayer in general doesn't do it," said Bright. The
experience, he said, is "spiritually revolutionary."
Of course, Bright and other religious
leaders caution that one's motive for fasting must be to seek God alone,
not simply to have a spiritual high.
Seeking God alone is a tradition and
spiritual exercise many thousands of years old. Christian Scripture
recounts that Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness to gird himself for
his earthly ministry.
"Our whole life is a walk toward our
Lord, that union with God in eternity," Colombiere said. "He is the
first one that we seek and it is for him that we live."
Fasting can mean more than giving up
food, said Michael Mata, director of the Urban Leadership Institute in
Los Angeles. He said, "It has evolved to take on new nuances like fasting
from television or going to the ball game. Giving up some activity and
doing prayer or meditation, anything that helps center yourself to God."
Similarly, the reforms of the Second
Vatican Council in the mid-1960s said that Catholics no longer need
abstain from meat on Fridays, a point well received. What went largely
unnoticed, some priests lament, is that the reforms also said Catholics
who decide to eat meat must substitute another penance of their choosing.
Fasting, religious leaders stress, should
not be a time for public display or for drawing attention to causes. It
differs, for example, from a hunger strike by prisoners.
"Fasting is not to make you a great
hero, but to make you more compassionate, more sensitive," said Rabbi
Gilbert Kollin, a Conservative rabbi in Pasadena and president of the
Southern California Board of Rabbis.
"Ultimately," he said, "you are
pleading your case to God because you know you've got a bad one.
[You are saying] don't judge me on the evidence. Judge me on my potential."
©Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times