Fasting is the pause button for our 21st century lives

In this era of unparalleled - if unequal – plenty, traditions such as Ramadan and Lent encourage mindfulness about food, ourselves and our fellow human beings

A woman prays at the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Philip the Apostle in Sharjah. Millions of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East will begin their Lenten fast on Monday. EPA
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We are now in the first week of Ramadan, and millions of Muslims across the Middle East and beyond are adjusting to this year’s month of fasting, prayer and contemplation. But another community with deep roots in this region is preparing to embark on its own period of reflection.

According to 2016 data from the Pew Research Centre, almost half of all Christians in the Middle East belong to the Orthodox tradition. In Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, the centre says, more than two thirds of the Christian population are Orthodox. Monday is the beginning of what many in these congregations call the Great Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and reflection that culminates with the celebration of Easter.

This year, I will be joining them, and I don’t expect it to be easy.

While most of the western observance of Lent usually involves giving up relatively harmless vices such as sweets or chocolate, the Orthodox have a somewhat more challenging approach. In addition to giving up favoured treats, many will say goodbye to meat, eggs, poultry and diary for more than a month. Those taking part will eat simply, humbly and less. Some of the more pious will reduce their intake to just one meal on strict fast days.

This year’s parallel observances of Ramadan and Lent in the region mean millions of the Middle East’s Muslims and Christians are taking part in a powerful practice from which we have much to learn, even those of us who are not as reflective as we could be, enmeshed as we are in a fast-paced, always-on, 21st-century world. In an era of unparalleled – if unequal – plenty, fasting may be considered what’s sometimes called in modern parlance “mindfulness” about food, ourselves and our fellow human beings.

For those of us lucky to live in countries where food is abundant and clean water is taken for granted, it is no bad thing to be reminded of our good fortune. By denying ourselves the instant gratification of eating when we feel like it, casually ordering on takeaway apps or visiting a restaurant on a whim, we are – for a time – uncoupled from our thoughts about food and enter a different space, one in which all the hours devoted to ordering, preparing, cooking and consuming are freed up for, hopefully, higher things.

This is where the deeper value of traditions such as Ramadan and Lent can be seen.

While they can liberate us from the non-stop cycle of consumption, it is the social customs and human solidarity that give this abstinence a special quality. Ramadan, in addition to fasting and self-denial, is a month for giving and mercy; for example, charities across the region organise targeted fundraising campaigns to make the most of this special time, and companies, foundations and wealthy individuals will sponsor iftar meals. The Lenten fast is also intrinsically bound up with charity; those taking part focus less on themselves to support the less fortunate, elevating a dietary restriction to something more profound.

While fasting can liberate us from a cycle of consumption, it is social customs and human solidarity that give abstinence a special quality

As the seventh-century, Qatar-born monk Abbas Isaac put it: “An uncharitable ascetic is a barren tree.” Indeed, many argue that engaging in practices such as fasting without embracing their spiritual and social core is a form of self-help at best, or a faddy diet plan at worst. They may have a point.

However, Dr Georgios Siskos, a lecturer in theology at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, tells The National that in his view while fasting is the “physical organisation of a struggle that is meant to be spiritual”, even without this religious dimension it is “an earlier stage that is absolutely worthwhile”.

Dr Siskos describes fasting as an essentially social act that is “a very basic antidote against man’s obsession with solving his problems through the consumption of goods”.

“It teaches man to deny himself,” he adds. “This is the first step towards recognition and respect for the other and for nature. It is the solution to the ecological problem. It is an apprenticeship in the way of nature and the harmony of nature. And this in turn is discipleship to a mode of existence beyond the individual self and even beyond nature itself.”

Living in an Islamic country where Ramadan profoundly changes daily life for one month each year, I think that being exposed to the communal spirit, the coming together and the rich link to tradition and culture inherent in such practices connects people to one another. It can also clear the mental clutter of life in the internet era, thus leaving the space for spiritual reflection, if one is so inclined.

In Facing Phantoms, a religious documentary currently in production in the US, Fr Evan Armatas, a Greek Orthodox priest at St Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado, puts it succinctly: “Our phones, our screens, media, substances, even many of what we’d call our recreational pursuits – they are often just a way to distract us from the present. But if we want to be in someone’s presence, you have to be in the present. And most of us waste our whole lives somewhere else.”

In a world that is accelerating at a breakneck pace towards an uncertain future, taking some time out to be comfortable with discomfort, to remove the ego’s focus on oneself and to see what traditions such as Ramadan and Lent can teach us is time well spent. That many Muslims and Christians in the Middle East will soon be walking two similar paths will perhaps make the journey a little less lonely.

Published: March 14, 2024, 4:00 AM