Why I am fasting for Ramadan

Why I am fasting for Ramadan

A Unitarian Universalist embraces a month-long discipline of letting go.


Muslims all over the world are observing Sawm, or fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, which falls this year on September 23 through October 22. During this period, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and engaging in sexual activity. Muslims believe fasting teaches self-restraint, deepens their relationship with God and with each other, and creates a deeper empathy and compassion for the destitute. They believe that fasting opens a space in their hearts for God to enter.

I, too, am fasting from dawn to dusk during the entire month of Ramadan this year. During this period, I am setting aside as much time as possible for reflection, meditation, and prayer.

But why would I, a non-Muslim, put myself through all this hassle? Why not simply write a generous check to a deserving relief organization and deduct it on my income tax return? What benefit might be achieved through abstinence from food?

I admit that there are not many tangible benefits in undertaking this fast, other than maybe shedding some pounds around the waist! But the intangibles are certainly as important as the tangibles.

I am fasting for myself, for my own spiritual growth, to make more room for God. I want to deepen or reawaken my sense of the Spirit by letting go of my cravings for good food. My hunger will be a visceral reminder of my own deepest yearnings. As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the primacy of reason, conscience, and freedom, and I know that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of my living freely, reasonably, and compassionately is my own ego, selfishness, and unquenchable desire. I have tended to fill my spiritual hunger with food and drink, with material comforts, with stuff, with tasks, with distractions like television. A Zulu proverb says, “You cannot see the truth with a stuffed belly,” and as a religious liberal who is on a search for truth and meaning, I hope fasting will help me glimpse the truth.

I am fasting to witness to my convictions, to call attention to injustice and inequality, and to dramatize the plight of the destitute. Every day I have more than enough to eat. Our two refrigerators are brimming with all kinds of goodies and leftovers from restaurants and meals past. Every day—if I am typical of the men and women of America—I waste about 15 percent of the food I buy, enough to keep a child in East Africa from starving. On most days, I eat my meals thoughtlessly, on the go, unselfconsciously, irreverently.

I fast to escape the snares of callousness that lie in wait for all whose lives are too much blessed. Long after my month-long fast I hope to carry with me vivid memories of the sensation of hunger, memories which, I trust, will reinforce my resolve to do something in my small corner of the globe to help mitigate this incomprehensible evil of human hunger. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”

I am fasting out of gratitude, trying to become more cognizant of the many unbidden blessings in my life. I want to cleanse the windows of perception so that my vision is less clouded by desire and self-concern. Perhaps by fasting I will learn greater appreciation for the “gifts of the ordinary,” those basic elements of life which we conspicuous consumers take for granted.

I am not in any way pressuring you to fast, nor am I promoting anorexia. Fasting is not viewed as healthy by many nutrition experts and is strongly discouraged by most physicians.

What I am encouraging you to do is to make more space in your lives, to empty out yourselves so that something new might enter. I am encouraging you to reflect on what that space might look like in your life. What could you do, symbolically or literally, to make more space, to open up your life, to reflect, to connect, to question, to listen, to act?

Is there something you’ve been holding onto, something you could let go of?
Is there a confession you need to make, to yourself or to another?
Is there something or someone you need to forgive?
Is there something or someone you need to seek forgiveness from?
Is there a truth you need to admit?
Is there a drink you should put down?
Is there a celebration you can plan?
Is there an invitation you could give?
Is there a long past-due phone call you might make?
Is there a decision you can make?
Is there an appointment you can cancel?
Is there a walk you can take?
Is there a nap you could profit from?
Is there a sunset you can enjoy?
Is there a hand you can hold?

In this holy season of celebration, reflection, repentance, and sacrifice, may we create the spiritual and emotional space our lives so desperately need. Let us take a lesson from our Muslim sisters and brothers. Let us make our own fast, make our own emptying, so the Spirit of Life can enter into our lives.