The Common Good

Why We Fast

Photo via Paulo Dias Photography/Getty Images.
Photo via Paulo Dias Photography/Getty Images.

In February of 2009, when I tried a month-long Ramadan fast for the book Flunking Sainthood, I felt like a failure for most of the month.

Fasting was not a practice I ever cheated on (weirdly, it was easier for me to give up food completely in February than it was just to be a vegetarian in October of that year, when I did cheat -- how lame is that?). But I never felt like I fully "got" it. I did feel unexpectedly relaxed at the end of February -- and, let's face it, a bit smug that I'd persevered through the experience -- but not much more spiritual than when I started.

I think it's because I had the wrong attitude to begin with.

This came home to me last month, when my friend Peggy Fletcher Stack (the same Peggy I quoted yesterday), inspired by Flunking Sainthood, decided to try her own Ramadan fast. For the entire month of January she not only abstained from food and water all day, but also prayed five times a day, read part of the Qur'an, and generally upped the ante on her spiritual life. She writes:

January was a sacred time for me; now I have been dropped back into the ordinary world. The experience transformed my habits, my thinking, my approach to journalism, my marriage and, most important, my heart.

You see, the Muslim yearly practice of Ramadan is about so much more than fasting. It is coupled with praying five times a day, reading the Quran, doing good deeds, giving to the poor and controlling negative thoughts and actions. Any angry exchanges, crankiness, complaining, lying, cheating, gossiping or hurting others undoes all the good accomplished by the fast.

It provides a whole calculus to change bad habits (broke my dependence on caffeine) and eliminate mean thoughts (still working on that), while improving self-discipline and generosity.

For Peggy, the Ramadan fast was a feast. When I saw her this past weekend she was still riding a high of the new spiritual insights and love she experienced, capped off by a gorgeous Eid-like celebration with local Muslims. Her prayers were deeper and no longer perfunctory. She felt a oneness with God and other people, and felt any anger or resentment disappear.

So I made a decision: next January, when Peggy and her husband take on another Ramadan fast together, I am going to do it with them. And I am going to do it differently this time, adding fixed-hour prayer, generosity, and controlling negative thoughts. It will be less about simply not eating from dawn to dusk (which, gulp, is already really, really hard) and more about becoming a more loving person.

Please pray for me.

Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor and several other books. She is currently immersed in a multiyear Twitter project called The Twible. (It’s the Bible, now with 68% more humor!) Jana's posts appear via RNS.

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