Fasting and Prayer: Tools for Training the Spirit

 Over the past week, I’ve encountered quite a few references to religious fasting. Out of the blue, I’ve had fruitful discussions with several Orthodox colleagues who fast regularly, come across a couple of articles on the topic, and had more than one person email me with questions related to doing this in a polytheistic context. It’s actually funny. I used to fast all the time as a devotional technique for Odin but as my health has declined over the past 15 years, I’ve fallen out of the practice (1).

When I first came to Odin, I worked very hard to open myself up to Him, to develop good discernment, and to discipline myself in my devotion in ways that were productive to developing piety, respect, and receptivity to the Gods.  Because of my background, I gravitated toward ascetic practices like fasting and would often engage in fairly severe fasts for Him. I found it extremely beneficial (2). Eventually, discernment and experience also led me to other ways of engaging devotionally but I’ve never forgotten how effective fasting practices where. They worked on several levels: they taught me discipline of my appetites, to subordinate those appetites and desires to my devotion and ultimately to what the Gods wanted, they helped me to cultivate a keen devotional impulse, and they really helped in opening me up mentally and emotionally to the Gods. Also, perhaps because eating is such a tremendously socially charged activity, every day I was forced to consciously recommit to the Gods, to Odin specifically. I was forced whenever I saw friends or coworkers going for lunch or snacking, whenever I myself wanted to snack or would normally fix a meal, to call to mind instead the Gods that I love and to Whom I had dedicated this period of fasting (regardless of the type of fast I was doing).  

It’s a potent tool, one used by nearly all religions at one time or another for spiritual purposes. There are many ways to fast too. I used to think it was complete abstinence from anything but water, and for years, that is how I would fast but more recently I’ve been easing back into a gentler practice: on Wednesdays, I avoid meat, animal products, and sugar. One can fast by omitting a desired food or drink. One may fast for one day or several. Or, if one cannot fast due to medical reasons, one may fast from speaking or social media instead of food – a particularly potent practice today (3). I’ve realized over the years that it need not be limited to absence of food alone, though that is the traditional fast.  

It’s important to fast for the proper reasons: honoring the Gods, disciplining oneself in Their service, purification, cultivation of piety. Fasting is not a means to weight loss. That’s not the proper (or healthy) reason to do this. It’s important to be clear in one’s mind why one is engaging in any particular spiritual practice. We must, above all else, be clean in our work. I always advise consulting a doctor first to make sure there are no health problems that preclude fasting and if one has a history of eating disorders, this is absolutely NOT the proper spiritual technique to use. Yes, it might make fasting easy, but it muddies the waters of intent. Even if you can do it easily and well, if there is a history of any eating disorder, I would not include fasting in your spiritual work. If you truly feel called to do so and are absolutely sure that such a calling is coming from an authentic and clean place, then do this only under supervision of a teacher, elder, or perhaps even a medical professional (4).

Fasting should also always be done in conjunction with prayer. I know that when I fast, I rise earlier to pray before heading to work. I tend to keep my head covered for that day, something that puts me in deep devotional headspace. I spend more time throughout the day and certainly when I am home in prayer. My day will be bracketed, more so than usual with prayer and shrine work. It both roots and rounds out the practice. Fasting by itself can easily become a thing of ego and arrogance, something that is done not for the Gods but to test ourselves, to compete with ourselves, to see how much we can do, and then it becomes something that cultivates a negative type of pride. Prayer is the key to keep us from falling into such headspace. Also, fasting is not in any way to be taken as a statement on the body. There is nothing wrong with being corporeal, with having flesh, with being in a body. It’s not evil, it’s not sinful. Fasting isn’t done to scourge or punish the flesh. Its purpose is to engage in a discipline of both body and soul, and of our appetites, for a specific reason: reaching ever and always toward the Gods. It strengthens us in our commitment to the Holy Powers. It strengthens our will to maintain practices even under duress or difficulty. It teaches us to endure inconvenience. It purifies the spirit of certain types of miasma. When we fast, we are choosing to nourish ourselves with something other than food. We are choosing both to nourish our devotion and to allow that devotion to nourish our souls. After all, if we cannot discipline ourselves to bear inconvenience for our Gods, what good in the long run, are we (5)? All relationships worth having involve some measure of inconvenience. That holds true for those relationships we cultivate with our Gods most of all.

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Notes:

  1. Since I know we have those in our communities who will look for any reason to condemn any devotional practice that might somehow, possibly, in some way inconvenience someone or you know, prioritize devotion and the Gods, I should note that my declining health has to do with spinal damage and chronic pain, not anything related to fasting.
  2. No spiritual technique works for everyone. The ascetic’s path can be very beneficial and fruitful but it’s not something that will work for every single person. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t and there’s no harm in that.
  3. One very powerful fasting practice that one of my students once told me was the most difficult exercise I ever assigned was a three-day media fast. From sun-down on Friday to sun up Monday, no email, computer, phone (or other communication device), tv, radio, etc. The time should be spent praying and journaling, meditating, shrine work, and doing things that deepen one’s devotion.
  4. I also advice that one not begin with a difficult and/or extended fast. Start fasting the way my Orthodox friends do: one or two days a week, avoid certain animal products (meat, milk, butter, eggs). Once this practice has become natural, then perhaps consider a full (no food) fast or a day or two, and if you choose to go this route, ease into it by slowly decreasing one’s food intake over two or three days, and ease out of it the same way – break the fast with broth, for instance, not with a full meal or your body will express its displeasure in ways you will not like!
  5. Again, not everyone will be able to fast and that is perfectly ok. There are other, equally useful spiritual techniques that can be employed to similar ends. This is one technique of many.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on November 23, 2019, in Lived Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a proper fast…I don’t do them often, also for health reasons (on which more in a moment!), but also because doing so is pretty much guaranteed to bring on a fairly profound altered state of consciousness for me, and thus I can’t really function in that and do what otherwise needs doing most of the time, alas…

    The first time I did a fast (in October of 1994), during my first year of college, I was getting told by everyone I knew that I shouldn’t do it, that it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t worth the risk, etc. It reminded me a great deal of this thing that was done when I was in the 8th grade, when a group in my class, as well as a 9th grade class, decided to do a one-day hunger strike for charity to raise money and food for a food bank, and they all got told by their parents and the principal of the school that they were going to immediately be endangering their health for all of their life to come if they did this, etc. (Which is nonsense, since these were all able-bodied 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds!) I did not consult a doctor when I did this, because I knew they’d say the same thing to me, as a long-term type I diabetic. I knew the main danger would be having a low blood sugar, so there were two options: either go off insulin (a bad idea, since I don’t make any and some is needed for minimum functioning, despite what keto diet idiots say), or have “at least something” to sustain myself at a subsistence level. So, I did a “juice fast,” and avoided solid foods and only had water and natural fruit juices (and no more than two glasses of such per meal) for a day, and no other drinks (as I was a heavy soda drinker at the time, I did without that as well). Within the first few hours, I was already staring to have light visual hallucinations. I also did a specific period during this day when I sat in a field and drummed and said I wasn’t going to move until the Deities came and showed me something…and They did in spades (and Nature turned out in full force, too!). Little did I know at the time that this was a very typically Irish practice, a part of the athgábail legal procedure that lead to the “hunger strike” practice of people in Northern Ireland several decades back, which was also used in medieval ecclesiastical contexts, and which is sometimes translated as “fasting against,” and can be done with saints, angels, and even God to get results from them over particular matters of contention! 😉

    Ever since, I’ve found that to be a very effective practice for me, and have done it on several further occasions as well…though as mentioned, not much in the recent years because I have too many things that require me to have full faculties (or, at least as full as I’m able to manage currently!) most of the time.

    While I’m not on social media (other than blogs, really!), it is very difficult not to be “connected” in some way much of the time. About as close as I’ve been able to get from a total fast on that was the few days on the Temple of Aphrodite retreat I was on in August of 2018, where about all I did was to text people that I had arrived safe when I got there, and then texted when I left, and that was from a Friday afternoon to a Sunday afternoon, so only two days…and it was nice! Lately, I’ve not been checking my work e-mail accounts on most of my days off, and I’ve also turned off text notifications (they show up, they just don’t make the phone vibrate or ding at all), which have helped somewhat to relieve some of my stress and be able to do work for the Deities in a more sustained fashion without having to think about those things…but of course, each have to be dealt with eventually, unfortunately. I wish it weren’t such a requirement, and even for me with a non-smart phone and such, it takes up far more of my time than I’d prefer (as I say after typing an over-long comment on a blog!).

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  2. Because of my brain injury, I have to do media fasts. What has happened is that I have more time for prayers and devotions. I think that continual focus on inside etc, has turned me into a semi-monk. My prayers have increased over this time.

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  3. Hello, I really enjoyed your article. In my case I started fasting in my teens, once a week, full day fast (only water) and it developed into a natural practice for me. Some years ago I was asked to fast more and at that time I found it helped me -along with prayer – to connect with my Gods. It is interesting that after a traumatic event I was asked to slow down the food fasting and to take a fasting on media. It’s been too years without watching TV, Netflix nor going to the movies and I don’t miss it at all. In regards to the food fasting I fast for half the day, almost everyday. It’s a different way of fasting I was asked for, a milder one you might say, and I also feel that it does help me with my complex post traumatic stress disorder.

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  4. Sound advice. Fasting & prayer are a powerful tool in the spiritual life of a soul.

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  5. It’s interesting that this comes up now. I am recovering from a couple months long depressive episode, during which it was difficult to make myself eat. I know that’s not the same thing as fasting, but I have some thoughts i’d like to share, because Odin has specifically requested the opposite of me.
    When I was first starting the Shamanism exercises of yours and Raven’s book, it was about 4 months before He would allow me to move on from the Earth chapter, specifically because I was not taking very good care of my body. I was either eating junk or not eating at all. I modified my diet several times before I found something that worked, and I’ve fallen away from that lately. I have to get back it.

    My brother and I both ended up with very unhealthy relationships towards food because of our parents. One parent starved us, and the other overfed us, particularly my brother. (Seriously, my mother’s idea of a meal was a can of tuna shared between all three of us, and one lettuce leaf each. And no lunch. Two meals a days that summer.) Yeah it’s easy to see how we both ended up with disordered eating. I’m pretty sure that the aesetic’s path isn’t for me. This isn’t to say that isn’t a powerful or legitimate choice for spiritual practice. Heck I think your observation about the social nature of eating and how you had to draw your mind to the Gods is interesting – but for me (before I fell away from the stress of work, mainly, I have to go back again), I thought about my Gods when I was making my food choices, not just my health. Because this was something that Odin requested of me, so I can serve Him better.

    The social media fast for an entire weekend is something I’d like to try at some point. Closest I’ve gotten is half a day (not counting back when I lived in the woods).

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    • I had wondered on this post earlier if, in the case of some folks who perhaps don’t eat enough, or who don’t get to eat enough (for various reasons), if doing the opposite of fasting might be something that a Deity may call for under certain circumstances, in order to improve one’s health so as to serve said Deity better, or perhaps just because moderation is a good thing to do. As was pointed out to me around a decade or so ago, “total abstinence [from anything] is not moderation,” and sometimes people–myself included!–forget that, or mistake it for something positive when it isn’t always, and can end up being more like self-neglect.

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