Ramadan is here once again: The month of fasting that our Muslim brothers and sisters take as seriously as can be.
“We Catholics, fast, too, though!” I can hear some people respond. And, this is certainly true: twice a year, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are allowed only one full meal and two smaller ones, both meatless.
But to paraphrase a prophet: “Is this a fast?” Strictly speaking, according to the letter of the law, it is. But compared to how the Muslims fast, it seems a rather paltry attempt.
Part of the genius of Pope St. John Paul II was that he recognized in some other religions when they got something right, and when it was worth lauding, if not imitating. And if nothing else, Muslims take their fasting seriously. Very seriously. NO food from sunrise to sunset. Period.
Well, so what?
For one thing, this is not a competition. Islam is a religion that has always appealed to the common man (and I do mean “man”) as it is a simple religion. One need only utter the words, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”, make the hajj to Mecca, pray five times a day and give alms, and you are a “practicing Muslim”. Simple.
Note that I said the above things are “simple”, not necessarily “easy”. Though flights leave daily from nearly every major airport in the world to Mecca, walking around the stupefying desert with crushing crowds, temperatures regularly over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the Muslim version of the “Thought Police” on patrol, plus the ever-present reality of some terrorist attack, all make for a pretty brutal “pilgrimage”.
But this simplicity is part of Islam’s appeal—one hesitates to call it “charm”—and one of the reasons it spread so rapidly in such a short period of time. And for all its faults, as any worldwide monotheistic faith must have, Muslims do have the fasting part down well.
Hence the quote, “True fasting is constant hunger”, which comes not from any Muslim ascetic, but from the Father of Monasticism, St. Anthony of the Desert (d. 356).
How far we’ve come from St. Anthony’s version of fasting! This holy man ate perhaps only once a week. His food was almost always raw, and rarely deviated from some beans, lentil and bread. Water, in small amounts, was his only drink. His life—after hearing the Parable of the Young Man whom Jesus enjoined to “sell all he had and give to the poor”—was one long Lent. Except that St. Anthony’s Lent was a non-stop fasting—not just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Naturally, we are not all called to fast like Anthony. For one thing, it’s brutally unhealthy, and fasting for the sake of fasting is meaningless. However, Jesus Himself told his followers that certain demons were cast out “only by prayer and fasting”.
Our Muslim friends seem to understand this, and hence an entire month of rigorous fasting is ineluctable for their religion. St. John Paul II saw and admired this and encouraged Catholics to heed the example. We don’t need to set aside a month for fasting during daylight hours, but personal fasting—not unlike prayer where one “closes one’s door and prays to your Father who hears you in secret”—can be incredibly edifying and helpful to one’s prayer life.
Further, during this month of Ramadan, fasting just one day a week from dawn to dusk can help us begin to understand not only our ancient roots (Jesus Himself fasted in the desert, which was a good enough example for St. Anthony the Abbot), but to understand Islam, too.
“Understanding Islam”: this phrase is often used after some awful terrorist attack by Muslims who blow up or shoot up some public square. There is no making sense of nonsense. However, understanding why Muslims take fasting so very seriously can help us recover our own roots of this ascetical practice—and reconnect to the ancient Christian Desert Fathers who perfected not only fasting but prayer—and penance, too.
And one link can lead to another: what of pilgrimages? We are under no obligation to visit the Eternal City, let alone Jerusalem, but the pilgrimage travel business is a billion-dollar-per-year industry. Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Compostella, Loretto—these are just a very few of the holy sites that, if we have the money, we should consider—instead of, say, a third trip with the kids to Walt Disney World.
Giving alms. We Catholics don’t tithe like Muslims—or even like Mormons, for that matter. Perhaps we “give” in other ways: if we send our children to Catholic Schools, we pay a hefty tuition and the Sunday collection, all the while still paying the public school tax. Perhaps we work Bingo Night at the church or regularly donate time (which is money) at a local St. Vincent de Paul shop or Catholic Charities soup kitchen. Still, do we really need to subscribe to both Showtime and Cinemax? The money saved by canceling one of these premium cable channels could easily go to our Church or Catholic Relief Services or our elderly religious fund.
Praying five times a day: in Christianity, there are (depending on how you number them) seven or eight liturgical hours. Each takes about 20 minutes: Vigils/Matins, Lauds (Morning Prayer), Prime (suppressed in the Novus Ordo), Terce (Midmorning Prayer), Sext (Noon Prayer), Nones (Midafternoon Prayer), Vespers (Evening Prayer), and Compline (Night Prayer). If you have a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is a (shorter) version of each of the above “Hours”, which, if you are a Carthusian Monk, you must pray, in addition to the Holy Mass.
But we are not monks, and, as St. Francis De Sales would point out, it would be foolish for a man with a family to support to spend all his time praying in a church rather than working (or aggressively looking for full-time employment). Still, we have plenty of opportunities to pray at least seven times a day. The Rosary, the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, Daily Mass—none of these take more than one half-hour of our time.
“Habit is overcome by habit”, Thomas a Kempis tells us in his classic Imitation of Christ. He’s right: if our habits pull us away from fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and even the concept of going on a “pilgrimage”—when was the last time you visited the nearest local basilica or Shrine?—we need to develop new, better habits that are more salubrious to our spiritual life.