As we sat on the floor chatting, she was picking crumbs off her carpet and, out of habit, sticking them in her mouth and consuming them. It was Ramadan and I was living in a Muslim country, fasting with everyone else. I asked her whether she was fasting that day –women do not fast when they are menstruating, and in fact are discouraged from it to the extent their fast is not accepted. The reasoning is understood as being in order to protect health. But she replied that she was indeed fasting. I refrained from pointing out to her she had just eaten crumbs. She would have been horrified and considered her fast to have been broken. If she had broken it without realising, it was still valid – and I was not going to be the cause of embarrassment or dismay on her part.
Unconsciously I learned an important lesson about fasting and compassion. Fasting is a part of most religious traditions, involving various forms of abstaining from not only food and drink, but also from bad action – even negative thought. Compassion is valued above all else.
The Bible tells us that when we are fasting we are to wash our face, and walk with good cheer. We are not to make a show of fasting, or indeed of any good works. One hand is not to know what the other is doing when it comes to acts of charity – they are to be done as if it were an ordinary, every-day occurrence. But that does not mean there is no thought behind it, no intentionality.
There is an intentionality in overlooking the crumbs idly eaten by another. In the early days of an immature religious zeal, it is all too easy to point out to an overworked housewife struggling to make ends meet in the middle of the month of fasting (and feasting – yes there is a pressure to prepare wonderful feasts at the end of each day’s fast!) – all too easy to point out the mistakes of others. Perhaps the more meaningful fast is to refrain from pointing out the faults of others, even noticing the idle mistake – and have compassion.
There is an intentional choice each of us can make towards compassion, to the extent it becomes an every-day habit. The crumbs eaten off the floor were at some point in her life an intentional choice to see no morsel of food go wasted, a virtue our wasteful society could learn much from. A compassionate God sees the goodness that was chosen, goodness that became habit. And when we make a point of choosing compassion, make it part of our daily life, lived each moment – God grants us the idle moments of compassion freely given, one hand not knowing what the other is doing – becoming part of our very DNA. But it is first of all a choice we have to make.
Thirty years later – I am still learning from this woman’s lesson on fasting. Let no morsel of food go to waste in an increasingly hungry and thirsty world. Waste no opportunity to acknowledge the goodness of others, and to overlook what we might at first think to be a mistake but in the end teaches wisdom.
Bonnie Evans-Hills received her MA in Pastoral Theology from Heythrop College, University of London and has considerable experience in Muslim-Christian dialogue, focusing in particular on dialogue with Shi’a Islam following a period of three years study in Qum, Iran. She also took part in a theological exchange at al-Azhar University in Cairo for the Anglican Communion’s al-Azhar Dialogue.
Bonnie is Inter Faith Adviser in the Diocese of St Albans, parish priest, and serves on the national Presence & Engagement task group mandated by General Synod to resource multi-faith parishes. Alongside her friend & colleague, Michael Rusk, Bonnie has written the book ‘Engaging Islam: a Christian perspective’ for Peter Lang Publishing.
Previous: A Universal Reading of Fasting and Ramadhan - Farouk A. Peru