Podcast #488: Fasting as a Spiritual Discipline
The health benefits of fasting from food have gotten a lot of attention in the last several years. What’s often forgotten in these discussions, however, is that fasting has been practiced for thousands of years not only for the sake of the body, but for the spirit as well.
- The health benefits of fasting
- What is it about not eating that makes it a spiritual discipline?
- The disconnect between the two kinds of fasting literature Father Ryan encountered when he first started studying the topic
- What are the spiritual benefits of fasting?
- Various fasting practices amongst world religions
- Other practices that often go along with fasting
- The social dimensions of fasting (especially in Islam)
- Jesus and fasting, and how it came to be a spiritual discipline in Christianity
- How freedom and liberation can be found in discipline
- The holistic nature of fasting
- How the non-religious can use fasting as a spirit-enhancing practice
- Getting started with fasting as a spiritual discipline
- Alternative forms of fasting
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Spiritual Discipline of Fasting
- AoM series on spiritual disciplines
- The Pros and Cons of Intermittent Fasting
- What Every Man Should Know About Sleep
- Training the Soul
- Don’t Take Marching Orders From Your Belly
- Fasting in Judaism
- A Buddhist Perspective on Fasting
- How Jesuit Spirituality Can Improve Your Life
- 4 Lessons From a 4-Week Social Media Fast
- Father Tom Ryan’s website
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The health benefits of fasting from food have gotten a lot of attention the last several years. What’s often forgotten in these discussions however, is that fasting has been practiced for thousands of years, not only for the sake of the body but for the spirit as well. My guest today has written a book, The Sacred Art of Fasting, that explores the different ways fasting is practiced by all the world’s major religions and how it can be practiced by individuals today. His name of Father Tom Ryan. He’s a priest, an author and today on the show, we discuss the reasons for making fasting a spiritual discipline, how this discipline is practiced within several different religions, and how it can still be practiced by someone who isn’t religious and how to get started with this universal age old discipline as well. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/spiritualfasting. Father Tom Ryan, welcome to the show.
Father Tom Ryan: Pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book called The Sacred Art of Fasting. Before we get into what makes fasting sacred, let’s talk about the health benefits, because there’s a lot of talk. People are doing fasting today for health benefits. What are some of the health benefits of fasting?
Father Tom Ryan: First of all, I agree with you that there are very real benefits to fasting. I think we need to recognize simply that the body is a microcosm of the earth and just as there’s a whole host of toxins that are poisoning our earth’s ecosystem, so it is with our individual physical bodies. Especially challenge in our era in which previously unknown unique synthetic chemicals and so forth are being developed and tried out on us in different foods. Fasting allows the body to rest, to detoxify, and to heal. Normally, in addition to digesting food, which is the body’s biggest job, the body works to eliminate wastes, to fight diseases, to ward off sickness. It replenishes worn out cells, nourishes the blood, and when it’s relieved of its biggest job, which is the digestion of food, the system can then catch up with some of its backwork. Our body, through fasting, is cleansing itself and healing the parts that are ill. Some of the benefits to which people attest are you just feel healthier. The health improvement claims that one finds in the literature on fasting covers a wide range, like sufferers of such assorted ailments as constipation or hay fever or asthma or peptic ulcers, colitis, and so forth, they witnessed that their symptoms were significantly alleviated or disappeared altogether after a fast.
They also witnessed to how they felt more tranquil. How we sometimes turn to eating because we’re anxious. We don’t really need the food, but eating distracts us. It gives us something to do. In conjunction with that, by and large, people sleep better when they have a regular fasting practice. Nearly half of the US population complains of difficulty in getting to sleep, staying to sleep. It’s what’s going on in our internal organs that often keeps us awake. If we’re at rest, sleep’s gonna flow much more naturally if our body is not being troubled by overeating or heartburn or bloating or indigestion. It also helps us free up some time for deeper pursuits. Certainly fasting, or eating rather, is meant to be one of life’s chief joys, and when people sit down together it should be an event that closes the door on routine, opens a new space in time in which the food that’s passed from hand to hand becomes a symbol of deeper sharing for us around the table. But, the meal experience is meant to be more than just putting food into our bodies, which so often is just that. Something taken on the run and eaten alone. There are very real health benefits of fasting.
Brett McKay: There’s been a lot of attention to the benefits of fasting to the physical body, but a lot of people maybe fail to recognize or remember is that fasting is actually a spiritual discipline that cuts across religions and it’s been around for a long time. How have you come to personally understand fasting as a powerful spiritual discipline? What is it about not eating food that makes it a spiritual discipline?
Father Tom Ryan: That’s a good story. I had taken a leave I would have to say, like most other members of my church, from fasting and abstinence as regular disciplines of the spiritual life. This was back in the 1960s and ’70s. My first assignment after being ordained as a Catholic priest in 1975 was to the Catholic student center at Ohio State University in Columbus. There was, in my first year there, a day of fast for world hunger sponsored by the university campus ministry. Provided me with a new experience in fasting. I have to say, it was the first time I’d ever gone a whole day without food. There was a prayer vigil that evening in which people gave the money that they would’ve spend on food that day. Half of it went to a neighborhood soup kitchen for the homeless, the other half went to the organization Bread for the World. Something in that experience touched my heart and left me with intimations of the power in fasting I wanted to explore further. So, I began to keep my eyes open for books about fasting. It was a revelation to me that so many of the things that people said in these books had no necessary or explicit connection to God.
There was obviously a significant side to this practice that I had simply missed and the things I read only deepened my interest. What was I reading? Several reasons have repeatedly surfaced in this literature. Time related to what is most often cited as a motivational factor in fasting, namely body ecology. Many people said they fasted simply to give their physical selves a rest. A holiday. The argument just kind of went along the lines of the body is constantly absorbed in the work of digestion. Food metabolizing into energy, eliminating the waste materials, and to go without eating from time to time is to reward our bodies with the same kind of vacation that we give our minds after we’ve been working hard reading or writing. Fasting, in short, gives the body a chance to renew itself. It’s a time in which the body burns its rubbish. It’s kind of like a housecleaning day. The list of motivating factors that I was reading about were quite long and impressive. I’ll just cite a few of them.
One was you feel better physically and mentally. Another was save some money on food. Another was give the whole system a rest. And, of course, clean out the body. Sleep better. And so forth. Those reasons, of course, were the ones cited in the books on the health shelf of the book store. In the other literature, the pamphlets in the church book stores or in the rack at the back of the church, it was all about God, and usually in a Lenten framework. There was a major disconnect in the two kinds of literature that I was surveying. The material from the health food store gave you the body ecology approach and the one from the church, the spirituality approach. What I didn’t find were books and articles that help people integrate both the physical and the spiritual benefits of fasting. It doesn’t have to be either or, I told myself. Can and should be both, because we’re not just bodies and we’re not just spirits. We’re embodied spirits, you might say, in spirited flesh. So, what’s good for me physically is good for me. What’s good for me spiritually is good for me. There’s only one me to which it all comes back.
Confining the means of spiritual growth to the six weeks of Lent made no sense to me either. I thought if this is a valuable practice for those six weeks, then it should have something of value in it to recommend it for the other 46 weeks of the year as well shouldn’t it? As a spiritual life practice, it did not make sense to simply box it up and write Lent on that box. So, I decided to explore these questions further by preparing and promoting a Lent and Bible study series called The Adventure of Fasting. People I think were drawn even by the title because they certainly hadn’t considered this an adventure. We began with a survey of all the passages on fasting in the Bible and we talked a good deal about its human roots and the virtues of moderation and temperance. We still often show it to articulate a wholistic approach when dealing with the human person as an embodied spirit. On the one hand, we wanted to discover the value of fasting as an act of faith, hope, and love. A religious act directed toward God. We saw in the tradition how people fasted to focus the heart, turn to it as a behavior that clears away the thousand little things that clutter the mind. And, we saw it as an action that we knew as contact with God.
Kind of like removing the rust and corrosion from car batteries to enable the current to flow more freely. On the other hand, we also wanted to recognize the physiological dimension of it. If there is a lot of clutter and excess that could be removed from our bodies, we’d benefit. Unable to find a wholistic resource on the subject that dealt with fasting as a seamless unity, I wrote my own and titled it Fasting Rediscovered, A Guide to Health and Wholeness for Your Body-Spirit. I emerged from that series of discussions with a fresh appreciation for fasting as a way of communicating with God and as a way of caring for our in spirited body. Shortly thereafter, I started fasting a day a week. It was a beginning of a journey that continues to the present, one in which my own practice has been enriched and challenged by what I’ve learned from fasting in other religions.
Brett McKay: I’d like to get into some of the details about how other religions practice fasting. You’ve mentioned a lot of the health benefits of fasting, but you also argue there’s a spiritual dimension. What are the spiritual benefits of fasting that you’ve found? Broadly speaking.
Father Tom Ryan: Always when we voluntarily go without food, it’s because something else is more important to us, like be an early departure, slim waistline, or a feeling of physical well-being. When it’s done as a religious act, say in the Christian tradition, at the heart of it is simply this. God, you’re number one for me. You’re more important than life itself, which food symbolizes for me. The fast brings home to me in a real and concrete way that God is the essential source of all life and well-being. Focus away from food to God is deliberate. Yes, these other goods are important, yes I need them. But, all the needs in my life, if traced down to their deepest core, are rooted in my single greatest need, which is fulfillment from the hand of my Creator. So, from time to time I can forget just which needs are the most important and my priorities become confused. Fasting cuts through the grift and ambiguity, kind of like a meat cleaver coming down on a butcher’s table. It’s a concrete decisive act that says dear Lord, you’re the still point in my turning world. Please don’t ever let me forget it. For You, I will upset my routine today of three meals because you’re the God I worship, not my work or my routine which becomes all to important for me sometimes.
For You, I’ll give up meeting my colleagues and friends for lunch today because even though I need them and like them, the love and acceptance I need from them is only a reflection of the love and acceptance I need from You. For You, I’ll live with these hunger pangs today and let them speak to me in my deepest hungers. Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in You. Some of the values I think that major religions express in fasting as a spiritual practice is that fasting is abstention from food and drink for a designated period of time is intimately connected with religious observance. The religions that practice fasting encompass the vast majority of people on the planet. Buddhist, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, and so forth. You might justify we conclude that any spiritual practice, embraced though universally, has to have something going for it, wouldn’t you? When you look at fasting in the different religious traditions of the world, there’s a wider field of values that emerges. Not only physical and mental purification are there but other values too, such as self restraint, social solidarity, penance, atonement to God. It doesn’t take long to see that certain values underlying the practice emerge as commonly acknowledged and shared amongst the religions.
In the religious experience of humankind, fasting has always been a prelude and a means to a deeper spiritual life. Failure to control the amount we eat and drink disturbs the inner order of our embodied spirit. So, fasting is a choice to abstain from food at certain times in order to put our attention on something more important to us than ourselves or our sensory appetites. As a religious act, fasting increases our sensitivity to that divine mystery always and everywhere present to us. It’s a passageway into the world of spirit, inviting us to bring back the wisdom necessary for living a fulfilled life. It’s an invitation to awareness, the call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, and even a song of joy. It’s a discipline of self-restraint. A ritual of purification. Sanctuary for offerings of atonement. It is a wellspring for the spiritually dry, a compass for the spiritually lost, and inner nourishment for the spiritually hungry. Remarkable isn’t it, to note how in every culture and religion in history fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in our communication with the divine.
Brett McKay: It is. Let’s get into how the various world religions practice fasting and what it means to them. Let’s start with Judaism. That’s what you start off in your book The Sacred Art of Fasting. What role does fasting play within Judaism?
Father Tom Ryan: For Jews, one of their key reference points said Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights, talked about in the book of Exodus, and how Moses fast established a unique connection between fasting in the presence of God, and from this event sprouts the Mosaic law and the need for purity in the presence of the Lord. The Torah lists a number of reasons for fasting. Namely means of purification, means of showing self-humiliation, symbol of mourning after death, repentance for sins. The symbolism of fasting in the Torah has many faces, but all were done with a specific purpose. No act of fasting was done with the intent of merely denying the body itself, but rather as an expression to God of true intent. In terms of how that translates into concrete practice, fasting is obligatory for all Jewish adults, and there are two major public fast days, about five minor public fast days, and of course private days of fasting. The two major public fast days, Yom Kippur, or the day of atonement, and Tish B’Av. Yom Kippur calls for no eating, drinking, washing, anointing with oil, wearing of sandals. No work, no sexual intercourse. It’s a 25 hour fast beginning at sunset the evening before Yom Kippur and ending one hour after sunset on the day of Yom Kippur. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a repentance for the wrongs Jews have committed against God in the past year.
So, if a Jew has sinned against another person, the Jew must seek reconciliation, righting the wrong, before the start of Yom Kippur. As for Tish B’Av, there are the same requirements as for Yom Kippur, namely the fast commemorates, in this case, the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. There are also five other minor fasts in Jewish practice commemorating some national tragedy. These are times of purification, repentance, reconnection with God. The fasts last from dawn until sunset and no one is permitted to eat breakfast if one arises before sunrise to do so. One is permitted, rather, to eat breakfast if you arise before sunrise to do so. What are some of these minor fasts? One is called the Fast of Gedalia, which commemorates the killing of the Jewish governor of Judah. There’s the Fast of Tevet, which commemorates the beginning siege of Jerusalem, which is also Memorial Day for Jews who died in the Holocaust. The third is the Fast of Esther, which commemorates the three days that Esther fasted before approaching King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. The fourth is the Fast of the Firstborn. This commemorates the fact that Jewish firstborn males were saved from the plague in Egypt. That fast is observed by firstborn Jewish males on the morning before Passover. The fifth one is the Fast of Tammuz, which commemorates the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached.
In addition to these two major and five minor fast days, there are private fasts, such as a bride and groom fast the day before the wedding. The fast ends when they share a cup of wine under their wedding canopy. The purpose is to review and renew their lives. That gives us a feel for fasting in Judaism. Fasts are sometimes observed on the anniversary, the death of a close relative. Overall, the motivation is that fasting facilitates the process of Teshuvah, which is return to God.
Brett McKay: Besides abstaining from food and drink, is there anything else they need to do, and also intending the fast to be a spiritual fast, are they supposed to do anything else? Pray, give alms, things like that?
Father Tom Ryan: Those certainly do find expression in Jewish practice as well. I think that syncing of the personal practice of fasting with some kind of donation to others is very, very much certainly expressed in Islam particularly. For Muslims, fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and one of the highest forms of Islamic worship. The Koran prescribes fasting that you may learn what they call taqwa. Taqwa is translated as self-restraint, piety, or Allah consciousness. Taqwa is derived from a word meaning protective shield. Those who achieve taqwa will gain the good of this life in the hereafter. Fasting is a means for people to protect themselves against evil and wicked motives. It protects the person from succumbing to evil and it protects society by preparing people to work for the general good. A person who achieves taqwa is in a state of constant awareness of God. He or she thinks about how to please God by doing good and guarding against evil. So, fasting for Muslims, as well as for Jews, is a means of learning self control, developing sympathy for the less fortunate, and thankfulness for all of God’s bounty.
The primary motivation is to please God. The secondary motivation is to fight your own whims, your own desires, and to solidify the community. To try to feel the pains of the hungry. Intention in here can be made during the night before going to sleep or made when one gets up before dawn. As dawn breaks, the first of five daily prayers that Muslims practice are offered. Throughout the day, Muslims remind themselves that they have fasting for the sole purpose of pleasing God and seeking God’s mercy. The fast is broken as soon as the sun sets, with no delay. Having a few dates with water is traditional. In terms of motivation, fasting is between the individual and Allah. In denying one’s desires, doing the fast, and because Allah watches, the faster is forgiven his or her sins as long as their fasting is done out of true belief. So, a Muslim who fasts attains Allah’s watch over him or her, which keeps them away from evil.
But, there’s a strong social dimension to the fast among Muslims. Individual and personal spiritual development is not the purpose of fasting in their holy month of Ramadan. The spirituality is communal. There’s no going off to a mountaintop or forest retreat, to a desert monastery to develop a personal relationship with God alone. The fasting is to happen in the streets, in the homes and places of business. This communal spirituality and solidarity are expressed through a social network in which resources are made available to help those who are left without protection or support in society. Resources are made available for those that lose their means of livelihood or are incapacitated. Those who can’t earn enough to meet their needs. This heightened sensitivity to the plight of unfortunates in the community is very much a direct result of fasting in the Muslim tradition. When a faster feels hungry, she’s more mindful of those who are always hungry.
The social dimension of Ramadan is manifest at each sunset each day. It’s a common practice for Muslims to break the fast with dates, after the custom of the prophet Muhammad, and that’s followed by a sunset prayer since everyone who eats the evening meal at the same time, people are always gathered in each other’s homes to share the meal. After the 30 days of fasting at the end of the month of Ramadan, the month is observed with a whole day of celebration called Eid al-Fitr. On this day, Muslims from around the village, town, or city gather in one place to offer a prayer of thanks. It’s traditional to wear new clothes, visit friends and relatives, exchange gifts, eat delicious dishes specially prepared for the occasion. Outside Ramadan, there are other times recommended for voluntary fasting, following the traditions of the prophet. Among them are Mondays and Thursdays of every week, a few days in each of the two months heralding the coming of Ramadan, and on the sixth day following the festival of Eid al-Fitr. While it’s understood that the obligatory fast is that of Ramadan, regular fasting throughout the year is encouraged to help maintain the Allah consciousness achieved in Ramadan.
Brett McKay: You also talk about Buddhism has a tradition of fasting as a spiritual discipline. What role does it play there?
Father Tom Ryan: Buddhism … I pause because before becoming enlightened, the Buddha was known as Siddhartha Gautama and he had a minimal familiarity with his personal story. On our part rather, a minimal familiarity with his personal story I think is necessary to understand how fasting is perceived within Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama, who lived across the sixth and fifth century before the Common Era, was the son of a king who ruled the lands at the foot of the Himalayas along what is today the border between India and Nepal. He left home at about age 29, gave up his princely life, became a wandering aesthetic seeking the answer to the questions of why people get sick, grow old, die. In short, he saw the satisfactory answer to why people suffer. So, he set off to study with different masters, and after learning what they had to teach him, he still did not believe that he had found the way to liberation. When he encountered five mendicants along the way one day, he was inspire once again to take up the aesthetic life and practice difficult austerities, among which were fasting. For six years, he dedicated himself to this path, taking only the barest minimum food and drink.
Physically weakened and emaciated, he decided in the end that this was not the way to liberation and he remembered an earlier experience in his life when he had sat under a rose apple tree and attained firmness of mind through meditation. He reflected that this was the true way and he must return to it. The path of meditation. To follow this path, he realized, would require physical and mental strength and that he must eat and drink for nourishment. So yes, given the experience and conclusions of the Buddha about the extremes of aestheticism, one would expect to find the value of moderation firmly ensconced in Buddha’s spiritual practice, and such is the case. There is an appreciation for the contribution that fasting can make as a method of purification and as a method for practicing self control. But, care is taken to avoid extremes. All the main branches of Buddhism practice some periods of fasting, usually full moon days and other holidays. Fasting is a method for practicing self control for Buddhists, a method of purification. And, depending on the tradition, fasting usually means abstaining from solid food, with some liquids allowed. Buddhist monks traditionally have no solid food after the noonday hour. Some monks fast as a method of freeing the mind. Others fast to aid yogic feats, like generating inner heat. Such would be with the Tibetan Buddhist. So, there is a difference of practice there among Buddhists, and it is one moderately engaged with.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Christianity. You’re a Catholic priest, so that’s where you’re coming from. I thought it was interesting you pointed out in the book that in the New Testament, Christ doesn’t talk much about fasting. He fasted. That’s how He started his ministry, 40 days, like Moses. But then after that, it didn’t really talk too much about it. Mentioned it a few times. Despite Him not talking too much about it, it’s become a spiritual discipline within Christiandom. For a Christian, what’s the purpose of fasting?
Father Tom Ryan: I would say, as you note, on the face of it, Jesus as well as one of his main followers, the apostle Paul, refrained from making it a requirement of their followers. Jesus explained that seeming paradox in His response to a question about why His disciples didn’t fast like those of John the Baptist. His response was well, the wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But, He said, the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. Fasting will then be a recognition of something new that is already set in motion though not yet completed. Namely, the reign of God in our midst. During this time, this faithful and mystical union with the Lord, wait with quiet joy and busy hands and vigilant preparation and deep longing for His return and the fulfillment of His reign. That, I think, is one of the primary pretty major themes in the history and practice of Christian fasting. Namely, mystical union and longing for fulfillment.
Another major theme in Christian practice we might call liberation through discipline. Here, we enter the penitential motif, which is probably what people associate most strongly with Christian fasting. Penitence is always oriented toward freedom and liberation, though this has not always been clearly grasped. In Christian faith, penitence is not about expiating sin, for that equivalent has already been granted. We tend to think that God will love us if we change, but God loves us so that we can change. Penitential practice and discipline enable us to appropriate and make real in our life the freedom given through grace. They help us readjust our priorities, remind us where our real treasure lies. The entire tradition of monasticism in Christianity, for example, bears witness to this. The preaching of the church fathers, it’s clear that whatever saving is realized through one’s fasting belongs to the poor. Gregory the Great preached the one who doesn’t give to the poor what he’s saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite does not fast for God.
Augustine, another of the great early teachers, for him fasting of any kind, if it’s to elevate the soul, has to fly on two wings. Pray and works of mercy. Fasting, if we were to reclaim the best elements of the tradition, I would say that the church in every age has to interpret these old truths in new fresh forms, and in our age the climate of spirituality is wholistic, incarnational, and practices are embraced due to their liberating, life giving potentia. Rather than being aimed at punishing the body, you’re compensating for guilt. It’s not just for Lent, but it’s for Christian life. So, if prayer, fasting, works of charity, and justice form the core of Christian life and are inextricably linked, how can any one of them be quarantined to just one season of the liturgical year? They’re all essential elements of Christian living throughout the year.
And, of course, in Christian practice, it accords priority to that day in the week when Jesus revealed God’s immeasurable love for us. Namely, Friday. The day in which he died on the cross. Valuable point of reference here is the pattern in the early Christian centuries how fasting was generally understood as abstinence of all food until evening or just one meal a day from after supper the evening before until supper the next day. It also installed a meaningful expression, preparation for receiving the Eucharist, forgoing whatever meal precedes Sunday worship. Creates a psychic as well as physical space within. When something or someone greater is coming our way, we’re generally willing to put the eating on hold, and that’s the whole point there. But, as I’ve noted, its approach is wholistic. I’m not just a body and a soul, two things, but I’m an inspirited flesh. One reality. So, it’s a flexible instrument of the spiritual life that can be worked with creatively and it often has traces of quiet joy within it even. It’s only when fasting is experienced as a body language of spiritual communication, namely mystical union with the Risen One and longing for future fulfillment, then we can understand why fasting is characterized by even a quiet joy. It literally is an embodied prayer.
Brett McKay: Do you think fasting could be a spiritual practice for someone who is an atheist or maybe isn’t religious? Can it still be a spiritual practice for individuals like that?
Father Tom Ryan: Yes, indeed. As we’ve noted, there are real wholistic factors involved in the practice. As Augustine noted, that early Christian teacher, certainly you’ve deprived your body, but to whom did you give that which you deprived yourself? Fast then in such a way that when another has eaten in your place you may rejoice in the meal you’ve not taken. The challenge is to hold the personal and the social dimensions together, and anyone can do that. We can become so fascinated by and enamored of the sheer physiological process and benefits of fasting that it might erase everything else from our minds it ends up being just something we do for our own personal health. But, practicing fasting for personal cleansing alone drains the transcended dimension out of it. So, we wanna keep in mind the distinctive nature of fasting as a religious act and as something done for others as well as for one’s self. I think what makes fasting an art is holding the outer form and the inner intention together in harmonious balance. What makes it a sacred art, as I tried to stress in my more recent book on fasting, what makes it a sacred art is its motivating self love and other love.
Brett McKay: It sounds like, for someone who’s not religious doing it fast and intending it to be for someone else, that could just be as simple as donating the money that you would’ve spent on food to charity or something like that.
Father Tom Ryan: Exactly.
Brett McKay: So, think outside of yourself. Let’s say someone’s listening to this and they wanna get started with fasting as a spiritual discipline. What’s the best way to start? Should they just go right to a 24 hour fast or do you recommend people start slowly? What’s your advice on that?
Father Tom Ryan: I think the best way to begin in fasting is to ease into it. Start by giving up just one meal, but do it with purpose and intention. Frame it with prayer. The following week, drop two meals. If your religious tradition allows the option of taking liquids, take them. What to drink? Water and juice fasts are the two primary forms of fasts practice. Water only fasts tend to provide more of an intense fasting experience. If one has never fasted before, a juice and water fast will be easier and the best way to begin perhaps. It enables you to maintain your custom daily energy level while continuing to work and exercise if you choose to do so. A juice fast will help the body to detoxify and heal, though to a lesser extent.
On the other hand, it will also keep the desire for food more alive through taste of the juice, whereas in water fasting the desire for food passes more quickly. Both are good, but they’re different. In longer fasts, those differences become more important than they are in a one day fast. But overall, I’d say water, juices, herbal teas. Quiet the self so that you can hear and be more attentive to the divine and focus more on that inner presence. Drinks like black coffee, herbal teas, soft drinks stimulate the central nervous system at a time when we’re trying to give the self a rest, space and time for focusing on more internal realities.
Brett McKay: What if you can’t fast from food for some reason? Can you still practice fasting as a spiritual discipline?
Father Tom Ryan: Fasting can relate to more than just food and drink. If your health or your age or your life circumstances or those of any you know do not permit a fasting in the traditional sense, then make one or more of these ways of fasting part of your life on a regular basis, toward the same end. What do I mean by alternative forms of fasting? You can fast with your eyes. A little less TV, online staring at the computer screen. A little more introspection and reflection on your life through keeping a journal. Or, you might fast with your ears. Listening more to your inner heart and spirit than to television or the radio, iPod. Listen to and let yourself be challenged by the words expressed in the scriptures you read that day. You could also fast with your hands. Just back off from the things to agitate you. Take time to sit and reflect, to rest and observe. Make time in your schedule to just put empty hands together in prayer.
You can even fast with your feet. Become more attuned to the modern compulsion to be always on the go. Resist that impulse. Maybe offer yourself a daily quiet half hour of reading that nourishes your spirit. Learn quiet sitting and meditation. And yes, one could also fast from something like anger, resentment, bitterness. Get to the bottom of why you’re angry or resentful. What’s the hidden demand underneath? Do the hard work of talking you through with the other or expressing clearly what it is you’re asking for. Pray for the grace of forgiving those who’ve hurt you. We can also fast from judging others. Unhook from conversations in which others are being disparaged, or contribute something positive to balance the negative things that are being said. And before making any judgments, just recall that God looks compassionately on our faults. So, there are lots of possibilities here. Are there not?
Brett McKay: There are, there are. It sounds like the thing that separates fasting from just abstaining from food and fasting as a spiritual practice is the intent. You have to intend it to be a spiritual practice for it to be a spiritual practice.
Father Tom Ryan: That’s right. We don’t want to be the ones who, in our generation, lose contact with the medium, the message, the practice of this rich and strong spiritual tradition that surfaces in all the religions of the world. When you find a spiritual practice surfacing in just about every world religion, you know you’re on to something very true, something very deep and universal in human experience. So, if it’s something that you haven’t ever tried or have stopped doing, why not, especially for example if you’re a Christian, take the opportunity of this Lenten season to re-engage with a life giving practice known as fasting.
Brett McKay: Father Tom, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Father Tom Ryan: Yes, I have a website where one can learn more about the work that I do as the director of the Paulist Fathers North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. That website address is www.tomryancsp.org.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. We’ll put that in our show notes. Father Tom Ryan, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Father Tom Ryan: Thank you very much Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Father Tom Ryan. He’s the author of the book The Sacred Art of Fasting. It’s available on amazon.com. You can also find out more information about his work at tomryancsp.org. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/spiritualfasting, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. That wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives for 480 podcasts there. Also, the thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about personal finances. We’ve got articles about fasting. You name it, we’ve got it there. Artofmanliness.com. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.