This post is adapted from a talk I gave at USC’s annual Hassan Hathout Fastathon on 10/18, an event conducted by our student Muslim community to take a day of fasting to raise funds for a Muslim charity that feeds the homeless on LA’s Skid Row. Students from many religions participated.
I got very hungry at about 11:30 am today. I forgot I was fasting, and might have gone out the door to lunch except that Faaria (the student who organized this event) came in to our office, and looking at her brought me back to awareness! Thanks, Faaria, for keeping me on the program today!
And I’m glad I did. Because my hunger reminded me to appreciate the fact that I have been blessed with constant access to food for almost every moment of my life. That’s nothing short of miraculous in a world where only a few hundred years ago, lack of access to food was a normal occurrence for most people for much if not most of the time. The idea that anyone today, in the richest land in the world, should suffer hunger is unacceptable. Being hungry all day reminds me that the unacceptable is the real for far too many people in our nation.
It reminded me also that I have another kind of hunger besides that for food.
Simone Weil was a Jewish philosopher from France who was hungry for God, and found God through Christianity – even though she never became a Christian. She would go to Catholic mass and look at the bread of communion, but not eat it, because she chose not to be baptized into the church. For her, being hungry for God was the way to have God. Yearning for God was her experience of God. In one of her remarkable books, she said: “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
Spiritual hunger masks itself in ways that are easy to ignore at first, but later compound to bring us suffering. Being out of touch with our souls leads to obsessions and compulsions that take us yet farther from the Source of the spiritual food that we need. When we know it is God we want more than money and clothes and cars and careers, when we know our spiritual hunger, that hunger satisfies itself in a way that material goods or social status cannot.
It’s good to be hungry, when that hunger gets us closer to divine love. That’s what fasting is about, in all its many forms. Mormon Christians fast every month. Catholic Christians fast at Lent and other times. Muslims fast at Ramadan and other times. Bahais do the same. These are fasts from food. But there are other kinds of fasting. Buddhist monks and nuns fast from the delights of sight when they meditate with their eyes closed. Quakers fast from the joy of sound when they pray in silent worship in their meetinghouses. Monastics of all religions fast from sex. Because as Hassan Hathout (a great lay Muslim leader in America) once said, what makes us human is our ability to refrain from doing things we want to do, in order to be able to serve higher purposes. It is not enough for us to think that we have power over our habits and animal instincts. We must intentionally practice restraint in order to build up our spiritual muscles, so that we will be able to stop ourselves from acting mindlessly in times when mindfulness is most essential. Sensory deprivation in meditation enables us to focus on the here and now, pay attention to the actual thoughts we’re thinking and the actual feelings we are sensing, so that we can be awake to the present moment and aware of our inner lives, so that we can make kinder and more compassionate choices about how to live, and how best to serve others. Fasting of all kinds can break us out of the rhythm of everyday life long enough to wake us from the spiritual sleep that passes for wakefulness, and come to a higher level of awareness. Fasting is a physical discipline that awakens us to our true spiritual nature. Fasting ushers us to awe and wonder before God, who is Nature, who is Love, who is the creative process underlying the cosmos.
I applaud the charitable consequences of today’s fast, to feed hungry people in LA. This is a noble and fitting purpose for this fast, beyond its spiritual value for those who fasted. I pray that all of us will go a step further and fast from silence about the need for justice for the poor in this city and this country. Let us be charitable, and at the same time be mindful that charity isn’t and never will be enough to do the job of feeding all the hungry people in this country. So often we take the easy way out and don’t talk about such political matters for fear somebody will get upset. But for the sake of the most vulnerable people in our community, let us fast from this fear, and speak up and vote as our God-given consciences direct us. Peace, Shalom, Salaam!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California