“It’s a gluten-free day,” I offered, embarrassed at the seemingly pickiness of my diet-du-jour.
Twice-monthly, when the lunch hour arrives and my colleagues inquire about my oddly assembled meals, it’s difficult to formulate an elevator speech that encompasses my type of religious fasting, which is neither traditional nor prescribed by my chosen faith.
Since marrying my devout Hindu husband in 2010, I’ve made adaptations and additions to my Protestant faith in order to be in solidarity with a partner whose theology is much different than my own.
An ordained Southern Baptist clergywoman and graduate Duke University Divinity School, I married a convert to Hinduism who lived as a monk for five years. It’s a bizarre clash of East-meets-West—one that looks destined to fail.
Early on, Gauravani das and I set parameters we hoped would keep us together as husband and wife. We determined that we would worship together at one another’s faith communities, and that we would observe one another’s holy days and rituals.
It’s a spiritual immersion that makes for a full calendar.
During the course of our “interfaith deal,” it was actually Gauravani’s Hindu fasting days that helped me rediscover the ancient Christian Church’s discipline of abstaining from food for spiritual benefit.
Fred and Dana at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC. Photo by Franklin Golden
Broadly speaking, modern Protestants are the last among their Christian peers to keep a fast. Catholics around the world still fast regularly and devotedly during Lent and on feast days. But, Baptists’ aversion to high church rituals, sacraments, and church uniformity means we do our own thing, often at the local and autonomous level.
My traditional Baptist views were challenged in middle school when I met my first Muslim friend and I learned that millions of practitioners of Islam fast together at Ramadan. When I married my husband, I was educated further, observing his twice-monthly Hindu fasts for Ekadasi and other holy festivals. In seminary at Duke, one of my professors—a local rabbi—taught me about the fast for Yom Kippur. Buddhists I met after graduate school fasted periodically, and it seems as if the more I were exposed to different faith traditions, the more I realized that my fellow Baptists and I hadn’t gotten the memo.
Though Baptists might be the last ones to (re) join the discipline of food restriction, modern day fasting offers us an opportunity emulate and learn from our global brothers and sisters in all traditions.
It was with this spirit that I agreed to observe Ekadasi with Gauravani. According to Hindu scripture, Ekadasi calls for fasting from beans and grains, including rice and corn. It’s an odd sort of fast, one in which you can take from one food list (potatoes, for instance), but not the other (no lentils—the staple of the Hindu vegetarian’s diet). Seeds are on the menu, as are vegetables not classified as beans. But, every label must be consulted: is there corn syrup in that? Soy powder? Any residual rice or wheat?
Photo Credit: Alaiyo Kiasi Food Random
For a novice faster and poor menu planner like me, Ekadasi typically produces three oddly shaped meals of starchy potatoes and salads, which, by 6:00 p.m., means that I’d give anything for a big bowl of steaming black beans.
And this is on good days.
On the bad days, my body retaliates. Hunger sets in earlier, reminding me of my most basic human need. My blood sugar fights back with an “I’ll show you.” Muscle weakness and headaches begin mid-morning and a piece of grain-rich toast entices me. Instead of turning toward God, which is the day’s rightful intention, my inner chant becomes “Pizza! Pizza!” Any meditations of God have vanished, given way to animalistic roots.
But isn’t that the very point? Fasting implores me to remember my lowly rank as an animal in need of grace, dependent up on God for my basic needs and to be mindful of all those who experience food insecurity each day.
During Ramadan, it is with these intentions (spiritual growth, compassion, turning inward and toward God) that 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide observe a sunrise to sunset fast prescribed by the Qur’an.
Protestant and Catholic Christians around the world might do well to join our Muslim friends in such a fast. When we move beyond the physical discomforts, we all reap these spiritual benefits:
1. Fasting draws us closer to God. As we push through our hunger, we recognize both our blessings and our dependence on God for our daily sustenance. Our intention is to see ourselves more than an machine that must be fed; we are spiritual beings—in need of close connection with our Creator.
2. Fasting makes us mindful. It draws our attention from the mundane, from the ego, and from meaningless conflict. It helps us go inward and deeper.
3. Fasting cultivates compassion. The majority of Americans cannot fathom what it means not to have access to three meals and snacks per day. Fasting helps us remember those in our communities, states, countries, and across the globe whose fasting is not voluntary, but a circumstance of reality. Fasting encourage us to be of service to others.
This Interfaith Ramadan, I encourage all of us to try some form of fasting, exchanging unlimited consumption for time spent in prayer, meditation, study, and embodying compassion. What might be the spiritual results? The possibilities are endless.
The Rev. J. Dana Trent, M.Div., is the author of the award-winning interfaith memoir, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She blogs at http://jdanatrent.com/ and tweets at @jdanatrent.