SV Life Stories from San Jose Mercury News
Published Saturday, March 11, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Discipline of fasting gains favor
BY LARRY B. STAMMER
AND MARGARET RAMIREZ
Los Angeles Times
TO FEEL good and look good, Americans spend millions each year on losing weight -- from tummy tucks to health club memberships.
Through it all the mantra is exercise and diet.
Now, in the Christian penitential season of Lent, which began Wednesday, millions of the faithful are dieting 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 is under way
Lent began with this 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" March 13, known as "Clean Monday" because believers abstain from eating meat, poultry, fish or 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.
Last week, for example, members of the Baha'i faith began fasting to take their mind away from the physical world and concentrate on spiritual awareness. While the Baha'is 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 percent nationwide attend services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, according to a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1998. Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles said he believes a growing number of people are participating in the traditional Yom Kippur fast.
Not yielding to any appetites
"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," Field said.
Usually associated with churches 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 Association of Evangelicals called for 40 days of fasting and prayer by 30 million members of the association's member churches.
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, said Bill Bright, founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. 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."
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 such as fasting from television or going to the ballgame. Giving up some activity and doing prayer or meditation, anything that helps you center yourself to God."
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