By the time of the first thaw preceding spring, when hunter and hunted alike emerge from their dens, holes, nests, burrows, caves, cabins, huts, tents, tipis and yurts, a huge and hollow hunger hangs heavy upon the earth. Awakened from their long winter's stupor by the warmth and light of the returning sun, all creatures, great and small, breathe deep of the newly fresh air and realize that they are ravenous.
Provisions, carefully collected, prepared and stored for the duration, have by now been completely depleted. Prey is pitifully skinny with no satisfying fat to spare. New greens and grasses have not yet begun to sprout. Every odd berry and bud, quick-frozen on the twig the previous fall, has already been discovered and thoroughly savored. Anything at all remotely edible has long since been devoured. Bellies swell. Starvation stalks the land.
Yet this seasonal hunger is one of hope, rather than of desperation. Had the fall harvest or hunt been a failure, had the supplies been somehow subject to ruin, had the reserves run so low earlier in the winter, it might have proven fatal. But, since spring is so near, it is only a matter of time until there is food once more. Meanwhile, the prospect must sustain us.
Over time and through tribulation, people have learned to eat their hunger -- to exploit a period of foodlessness for the invaluable experience it can offer. Starvation is an excellent exercise for endurance and it opens the psychic pathways to the divine through heightened dreams, hallucinations and visions. Thus, famine at once stimulates the voracious appetite of the soul and serves up the rich nourishment, which fuels it.
Fasting -- deliberate self-deprivation -- is a voluntary substitute for scarcity which has developed almost universally into a spiritual skill. Fasting is not not eating. Hunger here is a fulfilling, rather than a desperate, process. It is a discipline through which people can establish and maintain intimate contact and interaction with the spiritual realm.
As a purification rite in preparation of an important ritual or event in the life of a person or a community, abstinence is as important as bathing in most religions. By cleaning the body from the inside out, fasting sanctifies it, declaring it a sacred vessel deemed worthy of the reception of communion or initiation or blessing. Fasting is the offering of sacrament or sacrifice.
In the ancient Persian Mithraic tradition, severe fasting preceded the sacramental meal. In order to partake of the special sesame cakes and sacred draught during the rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiates had to first fast. The ceremonial oath sworn begins, "I have fasted, I have drunk the cyceon" (a ritual drink made from water and grain). Devout Catholics, too, fast before accepting the Eucharist. That is, once pure, they partake of God as a wafer, taking Him upon the tongue and consuming Him literally.
Before entering a temple, it was customary for Egyptians to fast and perform ablutions. Hindu and Jain ascetics fast in preparation for ritual practice as well as while they are on a holy pilgrimage, as do the Islamic faithful who fast for three days during pilgrimage and for five days upon return. Three fasts, each 10 days long, was prerequisite for initiation into the Egyptian cults of the Goddess Isis. Fasting also preceded all sacrifice offered in Her honor. In classical China, Chai (ritual fasting) was practiced before a sacrificial offering was presented to the ancestral spirits.
Lapp shamans, too, fasted in anticipation of making a sacrifice. An Aztec who aspired to join the sacrificial priesthood was required to fast, in addition to maintaining other abstinences, as part of his instruction. Druid priests, as well, endured prolonged fasts prior to their rites of initiation. The knights of yore -- devoted servants and protectors, proselytes of the sovereignty of god, king and country -- practiced a fasting, prayerful vigil throughout the night prior to their entitlement ceremonies.
Christians repent for sin at Lent, the 40-day semi-fast which precedes Easter. Lent is at once a traditional purification fast in preparation for the Pascal Celebration and a devotional imitation of Christ's fast. And, because it requires dedicated focus and long-term perseverance, it is seen as a way of righting wrongs and gaining the physical strength and moral fortitude to combat evil.
Penitence, then, is a way of re-claiming personal response-ability for the continued sanctification of the soul and, hence, the society. Hunger is a small price to pay for forgiveness, complete exoneration of guilt and consequent re-inspiration of faith. The promise of gaining God's approval provides sustenance enough.
The flip side of atonement is supplication. Fasting has long been used as a device for calling the attention of the gods to human plight. It is a way to prostrate before the heavens, to impress the powers-that-be with nobly endured pain, to offer up suffering as sacrifice, and to beg indulgence and mercy.
Fasting clears the mind, as a farmer would a field. By burning away the chaff, it renders the brain a fertile ground for the propagation of revelation, and purifies it so that it becomes a consecrated repository for trance-formation.
All fasting, if it is a spiritual act, is an intense prayer or a preparation for it. It is a yearning of the soul to merge in the divine essence ... How far I am in tune with the Infinite, I do not know. But I do know that the fast has made the passion for such a state intenser than ever.
-- Mahatma Gandhi
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