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What meaning can the Fast have if one is not able to observe it? The spiritual and symbolic natures of the Fast remain.

Observing the Fast When You Are Not to Abstain from Food

by Duane L. Herrmann

published in Fasting: The Moon and Its Suns: A Bahá'í Handbook, pages 52-56
George Ronald, 1989
The period of fasting ordained by Bahá’u’lláh is among His laws for the spiritual regeneration of mankind. Its purpose is not that His servants should go hungry, but that they should learn detachment from this physical world and the appetites of self. In the prayers revealed for the fasting period, He asks that the Fast ‘cleanse…the hearts of Thy servants’ and that those who keep the Fast may ‘detach themselves entirely from all except Thyself’. He warns His followers to ‘beware lest desire deprive you of this grace that is appointed in the Book’. The Fast is for our benefit, but we will not receive its bounties if we do not control our physical desires.

In a Tablet to an individual Bahá’u’lláh illustrates the depth to which we should detach ourselves from our personal, physical, selfish desires. He says that if He were to ordain that the people should fast and no time were to be given to stop fasting, all would continue fasting until they had given their souls back to God. This is the ultimate in detachment: complete surrender to the Will of God to the extent that our own lives would mean nothing.

He did not ask us to fast to such an extreme, but that is the level of detachment for which we should aim. In the prayers for the Fast, Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly stresses this point by stating that we are to die to all we possess and live to whatever is God’s. His prayer for those who fast is ‘that they purify their souls and rid themselves of all attachment to anyone but Thee’. And ‘blessed is he that observeth the fast wholly for Thy sake and with absolute detachment from all things except Thee’. He prays, too, that the Fast may become a river of life-giving waters for our souls.

All this is possible, and especially possible during the time Bahá’u’lláh has set aside for the Fast, for He affirms to God that ‘Thou has endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue inscrutable to all except Thee’. We cannot know the power invested in these days of fasting, but we can be assured that they are special days indeed. They are the days when we ask God to ‘enable us to soar in the heavens of Thy transcendent glory’. To do this we have to remove ourselves from all that is contrary to God’s Will; for this we detach ourselves from the physical world.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that we should fast because the Messengers of God have fasted. When revealing Their teachings and establishing Their laws, the Manifestations fasted. Every sincere soul who loves someone longs to experience what that loved one has experienced; therefore, since the Prophets fasted, we too should fast – if for no other reason. They fasted when revealing Their teachings and establishing Their laws; our fasting indicates faithfulness to those teachings and obedience to those laws.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá also explained that fasting (together with prayer) is a cause of ‘awakening and mindfulness’, and is conducive to ‘protection and preservation from tests’. Our senses are sharpened and we become more open to spiritual impulses. At the same time our reliance on our physical (or animal) impulses is lessened. Our identity as spiritual beings is intensified. This break in daily routine allows us the concentrated opportunity to realign our outward actions with our inner nature. Mindful of our spiritual essence, we turn our attention to our heavenly virtues and are less influenced by our animalistic urges, and wo we are protected from acts not conducive to our well-being.

And fasting is symbolic. Our lives are to be examples of detachment and self-restraint – and fasting is a symbol of that. As spiritual beings we are not bound by the appetites of our physical selves. We gain mastery and control over them in order to take on the characteristics of the spirit, to be carried away by the breathings of heaven and to catch fire from the love of God. As we do so we become more perfect spiritual beings.

Material fasting is a token of our spiritual detachment. The physical fast is simply restraint from eating physical food: physical detachment. The greater detachment is the spiritual fast: detachment from all desires of the self. This latter is our goal and the harder to attain. Still, we have the material fast to remind us and help us on our way towards real detachment.

The Guardian assures us that prayer and fasting will help us in this struggle. He said they ‘act as stimulants to the soul, strengthen, revive and purify it, and thus, ensure its steady development’. The fasting time, he said, is ‘essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation’. He did not say it was a time of hunger, so the incidental hunger is of no consequence. It is not important. The significance and purpose of the fast is ‘fundamentally spiritual in character’.

Yet what about the person who, for medical reasons, cannot observe the physical fast? Will that individual be denied spiritual development because the body is incapable of sustaining that length of time without certain nutrients? Is the will of God capricious? Is that person to be deprived of the benefits and bounties of fasting?

Not necessarily. In the prayer for Naw-Rúz, at the close of the Fast, Bahá’u’lláh proclaims: ‘Shouldst Thou regard him who hath broken the fast as on who hath observed it, such a man would be reckoned among them who from eternity had been keeping the fast. And shouldst Thou decree that he who hath observed the fast hath broken it that person would be far…removed from the crystal waters of this living Fountain.’ At that distance, the soul is not likely to receive much relief from the spiritual desert.

Clearly the eating (or not eating) of food is not the most important aspect of observing the Fast. If the doctor says you should not fast, or if any of the other conditions apply which Bahá’u’lláh says will exempt you – you should not. It is not our actions that determine the grace of God, but our motives. Less than perfect actions can be accepted, and therefore perfected, by Bahá’u’lláh if our hearts are pure and our motives spotless. The purpose of the Fast remains: spiritual recuperation, in the of of the Guardian; self-restraint, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; and detachment, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh. This is the significance of the Fast.

If a person cannot observe the physical side of the Fast there is no reason for him to ignore the reality of it. If we do not concern ourselves with the essence of the Fast, then we are not like those who, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘have fasted in the daytime…and who have repudiated Thy truth, disbelieved in Thy signs, gainsaid Thy testimony, and perverted Thine utterances’? It is not just by our actions (not eating) that we observe the Feast. We have to observe it with our hearts. And it may be an even greater challenge for those individuals who cannot keep the physical Fast, to satisfy their body’s special requirements while at the same time seeking that level of detachment and spiritual readjustment which is the purpose of the Fast.

To aid and assist us Bahá’u’lláh has revealed special prayers for this time of fasting. They help focus our hearts and minds on the spiritual reality of these special days. Therefore, even if we have to eat for medical reasons, we can observe the Fast, its intent and essence, in our hearts and prayers.

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