The fasts that we have chosen

I have just completed a sabbatical from blogging related to pressing professional obligations. In the time away I have made good progress on a variety of work projects such that I think I can once again contribute at BCC. I have decided to return with a monthly post on Fast Sunday at least initially including meditations on fasting.

Fasting means a lot to me. It was 20 years ago this August that I engaged in a fast that changed the course of my life. (More about that this August.) Today I want to reflect some on fasting itself.[1] In this post, I am not arguing for any particular understanding of fasting or prescribing any particular type of practice practice or belief. I want instead to introduce briefly different layers within the “cloud of meanings” surrounding fasting.[2]

Fasting has been a part of human culture from the beginning. In the earliest epochs, fasting was often a reflection of the scarcity of food. Such fasting, imposed by the vagaries of environment and now government policy, are not just found in remote human history. The Irish potato blight of the 1840s, the disastrous agricultural policies of Leninism and Stalinism, the current plight of many in sub-Saharan Africa all reflect settings in which externally imposed fasting, famine, continues to affect the lives of human beings.

Even in ancient times, though, there were people(s) who engaged in a ritual version of the starvation associated with famine. For some period of time such individuals went without food and sometimes without drink. Some religion scholars understand these early fasts to represent a time of acknowledging dependency on God. In this view such fasting is a brief ritual recapitulation of famine that emphasizes how much the people relies on God to keep famine away. By mimicking starvation, these people hoped to hold it at bay, in the complex religious logic of societies now alien to us.

Others, usually poor peasants, engaged in fasting in order to support itinerant prophets. Some scholars understand this as an important aspect of fasting in the earliest Christianities. Poor believers went without food several days a month in order to preserve the money required to support those who had heeded the call of Jesus to prepare for his imminent return and had thus abandoned work and family and other responsibilities and contexts that would otherwise have provided their sustenance. (Such an approach was still active in the early nineteenth century among the LDS and some of their peers; at times, communal fasts were the way the LDS supported and sustained Joseph Smith in his full-time religious work.)

In some settings and with time, such a communal fast also became a way to redistribute wealth and underscore the social flattening that occurred within Christian communities—even the wealthy who never had to worry over the source of their food in their public lives would participate in the ritual famine in order to spare the resources for those in the community who lived the embarrassed and alienated life of the urban poor. Such a practice persists, beautifully and radically, among modern Latter-day Saints.

Another important strand in fasting, one that draws my attention particularly, is fasting as an expression of the complex and sometimes strained relationships between body and soul. The problem of embodiment is a central one for perhaps all religions and cultural systems.[3] Whatever form of dualism (the idea that body and soul are separable) is accepted, modified, or rejected, there remains the fact that human beings perceive themselves as having both a physical existence and a consciousness that is somehow separated from that physical existence. For some it is the seemingly external awareness of the physical that constitutes consciousness itself. The literature on consciousness and dualism and the mind:body problem ranges from the tedious to the sublime, from the pedantic to the transformative.

I am not intending to treat the mind:body problem here, but rather to focus attention on the fact that we experience tensions in our lives as conscious beings that often relate to our experience of embodiment. Our backs ache, our digestion troubles us, we feel burning hunger to participate in sex, our skin burns painfully after a first happy day of summer. For a third of us the genetic material of our body mutates and then often overwhelms the body, terminally, in a disastrous process we associate with the zodiacal crab, Cancer.

We aspire to goodness and often greatness, we want to be like God or in tune with the harmonies of the cosmos, and time and again we perceive that our bodies have interfered. For people concerned with the meanings of the body, fasting has several possible functions. For some, and these are generally historical peoples or mystics, separating the body from its normal functions is a way to open the body for the visitation of God or divine energy or spirit. Not allowing the body to have what it wants restores a cosmic balance necessary to allow the spirits its free range.

For others such denial is a way of practicing the exercise of will over physical inclination. These are exercises that strengthen the spirit for its journey through life. Some are comfortable with the possibility that certain types of deprivation can actually cause the body and brain to malfunction or short-circuit. Fasts of sufficient duration do have measurable effects on brain function. Fasts from water as well as food can, if sufficiently long, alter perception and cognition. For some these special glimpses communicate divine truths of durable significance, and they do so without the cheapening effect of psychotropic medications.

Sometimes fasting can be a separation from society. Such thinking probably underlies in part vision quests or extended wilderness fasts, times when food serves as an emblem of human modification of the environment, of the complexities of social organization that allow the produce of the fields to nourish people other than those who harvested it. Fasting can be a time set apart, a time marked by the temporary estrangement from natural social rhythms.

This is little more than a fragment of an introduction to the topic of fasting. What meanings are present for you in the fast? How do you explain its significance?

[1] My wife has a chapter on fasting in her dissertation on Nation of Islam and Mormons, Radical Food, which I recommend for reading once it is done.

[2] Echoing the Hebraist’s “cloud of witnesses,” I have begun using “cloud of meanings” to describe the rich and complex multivalence of religious meaning in various contexts.

[3] For an example of how well the question of embodiment can be treated, see the now canonical Peter Brown, The Body and Society (the 20th anniversary edition has a nice new introduction).


  1. Mark Brown says:

    Hooray! Sam’s back!

  2. Personally, I fast because it’s an empowering experiences. I’ve broken habits and addictions through the spirit fasting has brought to me.

    We may not think of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis this way, but in a certain sense burying their weapons was a permanent fast. They put away their reliance on themselves to keep them safe in order to commune more completely with God and to be forgiven of their sins.

    The fasts we’ve been asked to do once a month can have much of the same power and meaning when we do them in a spirit of submission and gratitude.

  3. It seems to me that fasting on the part of the Latter-day Saints, while a beautiful and important practice, seems to focus more on the practical rather than the mystical side of the equation. We emphasize the donation of the money we save from abstaining from those few meals, we fast in association with prayers for health and other temporal blessings, or even, as Paradox noted, for the breaking of habits and addictions.

    Less often do we ever see fasting as described above, for altered perception and cognition; or for separation from society and communing with Deity. I’d really love to hear about some of these types of fasts experienced by Latter-day Saints. Do you think mystical fasting is just as frequent, but less talked-about because it is so personal? Or do any of the rest of you notice the same lack of emphasis on this aspect of fasting as I do?

  4. Sam,
    It is absolutely fantastic to see your name on a post here.

    (now I’ll go read it)

  5. StillConfused says:

    Because of my severe hypoglycemia, fasting is not really an option for me. I have participated in Lent before, which is kinda-like fasting,except that I gave up sloth rather than food.

  6. Cynthia L. says:

    Let me join the chorus hailing your return. And what a return–this is fantastic.

    Our ward took videos of every kid in the primary answering a few questions about their moms (for mother’s day). The leader who did it remarked to me that she never appreciated how important and how central food is to children. In our luxury as adults we lose sight of that.

  7. Sam, it’s excellent to read something from you again.

    Regarding fasting, I have to admit that, despite repeated efforts, I’ve never (to my recollection anyway) experienced any real sense of religious awareness, power, or insight associated with fasting. Ideologically and/or socially, I find the reasons for fasting–the need to experience deprivation, for there to be some real leveling and commonality amongst the membership of a community–compelling; I just don’t have the spiritual evidence to support those reasons myself. But I know many people who do; for example my sister, ever since her mission in Paraguay, has looked to fasting as a way to rejuvenate herself, and draw closer to God. I know she’s not alone in fasting having provided her such a route to peace of mind.

  8. Cynthia L. says:

    I don’t really sense religious power coming out of the deprivation itself, the physical sensation of hunger. But I do find it disruptive enough to my daily routine that it forces me to think about God more often in the day, or in contexts throughout the day, that I wouldn’t otherwise. So, more of the social thing I think. This is especially true (almost exclusively true) if I’m fasting not on fast Sunday but on another day. Then I have to think about God at work and school more often than I would otherwise, and it makes me feel cut off from people around me even though I am doing all the things and going all the places I normally do in my day. I never go anywhere on Sunday except church, and I’m already reminded of God throughout the day even at home because, being Sunday, everything is different (no shopping, etc) Fast Sunday for me, I’m sorry to say, is usually just a heart-not-in-it exercise in blind obedience.

  9. Thanks, Sam. I often find the non-fast Sunday fast, to be more meaningful on a personal level. But I tend not to give fast offerings on those occasions, so I find it less meaningful as a group.

  10. I struggle so much with fasting, because I had an eating disorder for years. Given how many of my friends at BYU had similar issues, I wonder how many women experience fasting the same way I do. It’s difficult for me to see it as a spiritual exercise when for so long going hungry was a product of mental illness and deep-seated self-hatred.

  11. britt k says:

    I’m also hypoglycemic…fasting has become something I prepare for..the week before I don’t eat any white flour or sugar, then the week after I eat a ton of protein.

    I can only fast-24 kind-when I’m prepared and not pregnant/nursing.

    early in our marriage a lady bore her testimony of how in her 50’s she was jsut now starting to understand fasting because she didn’t fast much at all during her childbearing years. Out of determination not todo that, I decided to fasat every fast sunday in some way. I eat more simply, fast for 2-3 hours, pray more, before I went off sugar completely I would skip it on fast sunday… that sort of thing. I think it helps set the day a part.

    I have enjoyed feeling closer to God, getting answers to prayers, gaining knowledge, and feeling my spirit-not my body was in control.

    I struggle with having my children fast because some of them are hypoglycemic. We all seem to do alright when we have an actual purpose in mind.

  12. You have remarkable insights Sam.

  13. Kristine says:

    Anon, me too. And I’m pretty sure there are LOTS of women who have the same experience.

  14. Anon/Kristine: thank you for reminding us of the burden of eating disorders. This speaks to the very important question of understanding how mental illness affects our experience of religion and Divinity (in a bleak and impressionistic way I try to think about that issue in my story in the current issue of Dialogue). There is an interesting and complex literature about the fasting behaviors of medieval women that only partially speaks to this issue (Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast is the classic text). That said, part of the reason I try to think through the cloud of meanings is that people who cannot participate in the food deprivation associated with fasting may be able to participate in other aspects of the cloud of meaning, whether through community or separation from civilization or awareness of our profound dependence upon God. I hope that considering components of Mormon liturgy and religious life from an enriched perspective will allow others to participate.

  15. Apropos hypoglycemia, are there any magazines or blogs or online communities or healthcare providers that have proved particularly helpful here? Or is it something that everyone has to figure out and manage for herself/himself?

  16. britt k says:

    Sam, my mom and grandma ar eboth hypoglycemic and they are the best resources I had…I haven’t found blogs, dr.s or whatever.

    Most people are fine if they eat moderate amounts of sugar-WITH a meal, and don’t start the day with sugar (pancakes and syrup after “fasting” all night). Most hypoglycemics do need to eat regularly.

    I get headaches, feel very week, and have fainted (9 times in a half hour on my mission). I’m much better now at reading my body and getting myself some protein…I carry nuts with me generally.

    Since I have an almost constrant draw on my body (nursing or pregnant) I don’t eat any sugar…I’m not very good and jsut having a little bit-it’s everywhere and it tastes good. I have learned to use honey and fruit juices as sweetners-gathering recipes various places. I need chocolate cake, cookiese and ice cream some times.

    If you have diabetes in your family, you may be prediabetic-which requires a different kind of diet and possibly weight loss or other changes to prevent diabetes. You can take a fasting test to detect this if you aren’t sure.

    sorry for the total hijack…carry on

  17. W. V. Smith says:

    Sam, good to see you back. You always get me thinking.

  18. Really fascinating post, and beautifully written.

    You seem to know a lot about the history of fasting, Sam. I’d be interested to know of historical parallels of a type of modern fasting that I find interesting, the fasting for a cause done by the likes of Gandhi and Cesar Chavez. And, it’s even more pronounced relative, the hunger strike. Do you know about the historical development of these behaviors?

  19. I like this post, but, and I don’t think you’d disagree, that of most importance is considering others, specifically the poor and the needy in our fast.

    Said in comment 3, “We emphasize the donation of the money we save from abstaining from those few meals..”

    Yes, and I don’t think the Lord would have it any other way. Love God. Love your neighbor. Esteem your brother as yourself. This means you will be unwilling to let your brothers and sisters go hungry, or without roof, or clothing. Is this not the fast the Lord has chosen?

    I also did a bit of navel gazing, thinking about the meditation and self denial of the fast. I think these are important, but when I read Isaiah ch58 it puts all those to rest. Further you can read Amulek in Alma 34 who tells you your prayers are in vain and you are a hypocrite if you remember not the poor and suffer them to go hungry and naked. Or read Matthew 25 and read what the Lord has to say about taking care of the poor and the needy.

    Whatever blessings we desire when we fast, I think we have to remember the poor and put the foremost. Because this is the pattern of the fast. We are the poor in the Lord’s eyes. We’re asking him to give us a blessing, which he is fully capable of doing, but for whatever reason has stayed his hand. Well the Lord is in turn asking us to give a blessing to our brothers, but for whatever reason we have stayed our hand in giving.

    I won’t speak for you, but when I realized this, my fasting changed from giving a generous fast, to thinking about how much I was giving and if it didn’t hurt a little then it wasn’t enough–and I’m trying to stay far away from the “how much” discussions. The point for me is to love your neighbor and put them on the same level as your self, emotionally, spiritually, and temporally (financially).

    To the degree that you can do that, to me at least, is in large measure how much you’re willing and do actually give of your time and money to your brother or sister.

  20. #18, hunger strikes are very complex–if you’re curious, I would start with Bynum’s book which talks about how medieval mystics used fasts to gain power over their environment. How they evolved from the 14th century to the IRA and the movement for Indian independence (which I suspect is a parallel development) I do not know, though I agree it is interesting.
    #19, I agree, which is why I called this religiously communitarian view “beautiful” and “radical.” Creating empathy for those who starve must be an important aspect of the fast.

  21. Yes, good to see you again Sam. Fasting is important to me and like others here, I have my own routine.

    The medieval stuff though, ugh. I’m with Jean Gerson, Catherine of Sienna was nuts. Have you read Holy Anorexia by Rudolph Bell? The topic gives me the creeps.

  22. Steve, I’m not much of a medical materialist, so stuff like Bell usually strikes me as vaguely silly nonsense. I find Bynum much more interesting.

  23. My point was just that reading page after page about starving women gave me the willies.

  24. aha, Steve. Agreed. It can be a rather strange world.

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