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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.