08 February 2012

Feasting, Fasting, Culture, and Religion (..and Lent)

Kowloon Mosque
Tuesday I went to the monthly meeting of an interfaith dinner and discussion group with Rev. Catherine. This month's meeting was at the Kowloon Mosque, which is quite near to where I live. I have passed by it many times since my arrival in July and it has always looked like a very vibrant and bustling place. We observed the prayers at 7:50 (the call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth) and then enjoyed a delicious (and very spicy!) meal before settling into a discussion.

There were representatives from Taoism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, Anglican, Lutheran, and some unaffiliated. We had an informative time of sharing about the different traditions of feasting and fasting and general attitudes towards food and hospitality cross culturally. The Imam told us about Ramadan and the general rules for fasting during that holy month, and about Islamic beliefs of food and hospitality.
Starving Buddha

We have many examples of feasting, hospitality, and fasting throughout the Bible. Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, Jesus feeding the five thousand, the fasting of the prophets. Jesus in his 40 days in the desert. The Buddha also fasted. There are also many cultural traditions of honoring a guest in your home or taking care in how food is prepared and served. (You could probably spend hours on Google and Wikipedia researching this.)

Just like mama makes!
In my own Christian (and Southern) traditions, hospitality is very important. We want folks to feel warm and welcome when they come to our home, and it is part of my Christian duty to welcome the stranger. We don't always know how to be a good guest though---we turn down offers for beverages or refreshments because we don't want to be a bother. But if you think about someone coming into YOUR home and rejecting the hospitality you offer them... I think back to last August when I went to the Idul Fitri celebration with the Indonesian migrants. I initially felt bad taking food from them, even though they encouraged me to eat and share with them. But when the Imam explained that sharing your food with a guest is a big honor, something expected in their tradition, I understood that if I hadn't accepted their hospitality it would not have been good. Accepting hospitality honors everyone involved.

In the West we don't typically think of fasting in the same way we used to--even Catholics don't always observe fish Fridays and Lent practices vary from a denial of alcohol, caffeine, or chocolate to the taking on of spiritual disciplines. Some are more diligent in their Lenten practice than others, but as a whole, it is not as expected  as it once was, and certainly not as much as one is expected to fast during Ramadan. We are more likely to do a juice diet or go for a 'detox' than we are to fast for spiritual reasons. While there are some holistic aspects to doing a juice fast or detoxing the underlying reasons are more health than spiritual.

Every year on Ash Wednesday we are invited to observe a holy Lent:

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to the observance of a holy Lent,
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (BCP 265)

We are invited to the interior life, to discover and live into the life we are called to live. We are invited to look at the ways our fears, attitudes, successes and failures, and opinions of others hold sway in our lives; to look at the things that separate us from God, ourselves, and each other.

So every year I hear this call to observe a holy Lent, I either don't do anything or try to give up something, or maybe take on a spiritual practice. One year I gave up sodas, another I decided to pray the hours. (with varying degrees of success...) After the discussion the other night, I decided to do something different this year, something of an interfaith Lenten practice.

This year I am going to try and practice Sawm, abstinence from eating or drinking during the day, and generally abstaining from alcohol as well as "ignorant and indecent speech, arguing and fighting". I will make a niyyah (oath) on Ash Wednesday to do this intentionally for the sake of God from my heart. Each day I will get up before dawn and eat a meal and say a morning prayer, and in the evening break my fast after the sun goes down.

Sawm is intended to teach believers patience and self-control in their personal conduct, to help control passions and temper, to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one's faith. Fasting also serves the purpose of cleansing the inner soul and freeing it of harm. Some scholars, following the earliest understanding of the uses and objectives of the ritual of fasting strongly object to identifying mundane objectives of the ritual such as physical and psychological well being. To them the ritual of fasting is purely a worship and should not be treated as an exercise mixed with worship. The objectives of the fast is to inculcate taqwa (God-consciousness) in a believer.

Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days to fast and pray. He was tempted and resisted. Can I also retreat from my life to fast and pray? Can I step into my interior life and reflect on the gifts I have been given? Can I examine my life closely, with compassion? Can I do it for 40 days? Could you?

We'll see... 

Grace and Peace,

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