Saint Faustina Polski: Św. Faustyna Kowalska
Saint Faustina Polski: Św. Faustyna Kowalska via Wikipedia

Fasting seems to take five main forms. The first type is found in most traditional religions where specific calendar days or portions of days are set aside for fasting. This type of fasting helps to honor and identify with a religious figure, past events within a religion, or people for whom the religion expresses concern—e.g. the poor.

Fasting on specific calendar days is also said to bring one closer to God. This kind of regular fast sets up the proper conditions for atonement and the expression of gratitude. And some religious people fast to commemorate the dead—that is, mourning and fasting go hand in hand within many faith traditions.

Another type of fasting is found in orthodox religions, particularly Catholicism, where a spiritual aspirant (such as a nun or monk) obtains special permission from a superior to fast in order to mortify natural desires and become closer to God. This arguably isn’t so different from fasting on predetermined calendar days, except that it’s an individualistic instead of a communal fast.

A third type of fasting occurs in other forms of spirituality, such as shamanism and Asian mysticism. Here the practitioner, usually a Shaman, Lama or Guru takes it upon him or herself to abstain from eating to repel or purge evil spirits, become cleansed of spiritual pollution and, in the process, attain higher levels of realization.

Fasting Buddha
Fasting Buddha via Wikipedia

Fasting in this instance is usually regarded as a sacrifice that benefits a teacher-healer. It also enables the healer to better help other souls that are still fettered by sin and ignorance.

This healer-disciple approach is not entirely different from Christian teaching and practice. Advanced Christian saints like Faustina Kowalska fasted regularly and apparently “took the sins” of others.

In the New Testament Jesus says some demons can only be purged through a combination of prayer and fasting.

But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21).

However, the Christian saint would never take personal responsibility while interceding for others. All glory and honor is always given to God. By way of contrast, in some non-Christian traditions the teacher is said to be equal to God or God on Earth.

A fourth and more contemporary type of fasting is found when special (usually berry) drinks are taken within a proscribed plan to apparently improve one’s health and sense of well-being. This type of medical/scientific fasting arguably is not qualitatively different from more spiritually-based fasts.

Gandhi fasting with Indira, 1924.
Gandhi fasting with Indira, 1924 via Wikipedia

But the conceptual framework concerning cause and effect differs among modern and traditional fasts.

The contemporary medical fast emphasizes physiology, health and biological cleansing, while traditional fasts look to spiritual powers, self-discipline and the purification of the soul.

A fifth type of fasting is political, usually but not always with religious overtones. These types of fasts, also known as a hunger strike, are taken to draw attention to some severe social problem or injustice. In some instances, force feeding by authorities can be a legal procedure.¹


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