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Bryan N. MassingaleMarch 11, 2024
Photo by Rauf Alvi on Unsplash

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Several years ago, not knowing at all what it would entail, I Googled a question: How do you keep Ramadan?

In the spring of 2019, after a series of high profile attacks on Muslim people in New York City and a reported rise in Islamophobia, I felt compelled to act in tangible solidarity with this vulnerable and targeted community. It just so happened that Ramadan was starting the next day. I decided I would observe its discipline of fasting as a way of accompaniment and solidarity.

I knew this sacred time in the Islamic tradition meant abstaining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, but I discovered it was even more rigorous. You fast from dawn—that is, even before the sun rises—until sunset. It also did not occur to me then that when Ramadan (the dates of which are determined by a lunar calendar) falls in the spring, with each passing day, sunrise comes earlier and sunset moves later. Unlike Lent, where the tendency is to count down the days to Easter—or to look forward to the permissible reprieve on Sundays, when the Lenten penance can be suspended—fasting gradually becomes harder through the duration of Ramadan.

Years later, I still observe this sacred Islamic time’s practice of fasting. It heightens my awareness of the afflictions that so many are forced to endure and the ways our world still needs healing.

Two years ago, for example, I used the Ramadan fast to pray for the people of Ukraine, and also to become more aware of the little things I take for granted. I could, for example, turn on my faucet in the morning and expect water would run. For millions of people in Ukraine, that was and still is not something they can assume. I was also able to teach my classes at Fordham uninterrupted. Many children in Ukraine are still unable to go to school.

That’s the gift of fasting; it attunes us with a deeper level of reality. The discipline of fasting helps me to see the world as God sees it. Fasting has helped me to look at the world around me in a new way: We are all vulnerable, but we are not all vulnerable in the same way or to the same degree.

The American way of life

The first two weeks of my first Ramadan fast, I felt kind of proud of myself. “I can actually do this!” I thought. But it gradually became more mentally and physically exhausting. I learned, as I read more about Ramadan, that it was not simply about the external practice of refraining from food or liquids. Ramadan, for Muslims, is a time to become aware of all that is going on around you so that you can come closer to God (or Allah, as the Holy One is named in Islam).

The hunger pains experienced are supposed to help the one fasting become more aware of those who go hungry without choice. What I voluntarily endure over this annual month-long daytime fasting period is something so many in our world endure without choice. However hungry or depleted I might feel, I can eagerly anticipate the end of the day when I can break the fast. For far too many the burdens of hunger will only increase as their bodies consistently go without food.

The American way of life is one that avoids the reality of vulnerability. We don’t like to dwell on the fact that many people wonder where their next meal is coming from. We presume we are to live a comfortable lifestyle. We presume most Americans have the resources to take a vacation, even though we know, at least intellectually, that this isn’t the case. Still, when we see TV ads showing parents taking their families to Disneyland, we can fail to recognize that it is a very expensive vacation. Yet that is the kind of life that is presented as normative in America. If you’re not living that kind of life, if you can’t afford to give your family that kind of getaway, then there is something wrong with you.

I don’t mean to demean Disney or to disparage those who can avail themselves of a needed vacation. But the presumption that these are commonly available opportunities is a tangible example of the tendency in the United States to avoid facing the brokenness in our society and our sense of vulnerability. We are more vulnerable than we allow ourselves to admit.

Hearing the cry of the poor

“The Lord hears the cry of the poor” is a verse from the Psalms we sing in our liturgies. But a question that haunts me still is this: “Do we hear the cry of the poor?” Fasting is a discipline that enables me to see the poor among us, because I now experience in my body the hunger so many others feel.

Moreover, we as Americans can use food for other things than nutrition—to take the edge off of feelings of nervousness or anxiety, as a source of comfort, or even as a drug to dull or escape uncomfortable realities.

During Ramadan, I become aware not only of what I am eating and drinking, but why I am eating or drinking it. It forces me to own frustrations that before I was simply blind to, because I shielded myself from them with food or a drink. When I can’t do that, I have to own the fact that I’m really frustrated—by that meeting, by that person, by what is on the news. I have to own those feelings, rather than medicating them with food and drink.

When I am fasting, I also become more aware of the homeless and unhoused who live on the streets of New York City. As New Yorkers, we can become almost immune to the poverty surrounding us; we develop a kind of forcefield (excuse the Star Trek reference!) that shields us from the painful and ugly realities that lie in plain sight. The hunger I experience during Ramadan fasting takes me out of myself so that I see and notice what is going on around me, yet which escapes my notice when I am full or satiated.

Another thing I learned during my first Ramadan is that your body has cycles of energy. If I eat my first meal at five o’clock in the morning—or earlier—I immediately have a burst of energy because my body is nourished. But at around two in the afternoon, if I cannot have something more to eat, I am exhausted, my energy is depleted, and I can quickly become cranky and irritable. As a result, my productivity plummets when I keep Ramadan.

That reality gave rise to another insight about our American social life. Many children in our country go to school hungry. How can you do your best on a test when you can’t concentrate? I now understand their plight more, and not just intellectually, because I have experienced it in my own body. In this way, fasting becomes an embodied form of prayer. When my energy plummets, I become acutely aware of the gnawing that’s going on inside me, which in turn makes me more sensitive to the pain of those around me who live in an almost constant state of vulnerability. I am moved to pray for them—and to continue to work for a more just and equitable world for all.

I think that just by virtue of being Americans, many of us become accustomed to a mindset that says those who are poor are somehow less than we are; that if they are poor, it is because they have made bad choices. There is a subtle temptation to think that if I live a comfortable life, it is because I deserve it. Yet if we think that way, then there is no room for empathy in our hearts; at best, there is room only for pity.

But as Christians, we are not called to pity people. The Gospel says we are to be compassionate as our God is compassionate. I don’t think we can be truly compassionate unless we are willing in some sense to share in the vulnerability of those who are hungry or those who are poor. Fasting enables us to do that. Not perfectly, of course; but I do think that it is an important practice that can move us beyond pity to seeing that the other, the vulnerable person, is indeed my neighbor.

Viewing Lent in a new way

We know Jesus inherited the practice of fasting from his Jewish faith. In Scripture, we read that Jesus himself fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Fasting is also an ancient monastic practice. In some religious traditions, fasting is believed to help achieve mental or emotional clarity. It is a stepping outside of your ordinary life so that you become aware of what has been all around you all the time, but that your daily routine keeps you blind to. But I think that many Christians have lost an appreciation for fasting as a religious practice. So even though Christians are called to fast during Lent —and Catholics specifically on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—we no longer have anything in the Western Christian tradition that even approximates Ramadan, either in terms of a prolonged external discipline or as a collective communal practice .

When I keep Ramadan, I am participating in a discipline practiced by 1.8 billion people around the world. We are all keeping this sacred season at the same time; we are all in it together.

Something I regret about Lent is that Catholics do not really have a sense that we are engaging in this 40-day period of preparation for Easter together. Too often, we look upon Lent as a kind of a 40-day personal improvement project. It’s a time for making and trying to keep sacred New Year’s resolutions. We decide we are not going to drink alcohol or eat sweets; but we are not often doing it together in a community or as a community. We Christians have become far too individualistic in our spirituality. In the Muslim world, Ramadan is not an individual exercise. Muslims keep Ramadan as a people. Ramadan’s fasting is an act of communal worship and prayer.

I believe that is what Lent is intended to be for Christians. Lent is supposed to be a time of communal awareness of our shortcomings as a people; a desert time of fasting and intense prayer that provokes deeper reflection about who we are in our world; a season that makes us as believers more sensitive to the cries of the world. Once Lent is over, we are not called to return to the way life was. Rather, we are to ask ourselves difficult questions, such as: ‘ “How am I different now that I’ve heard those cries of the poor? How am I different now that I’ve experienced, even in some distant way, what it’s like to live in an environment disrupted by war? How do we as a people make acts of repentance for how our blindness contributes to the brokenness of the world? How is our God calling us to change?

The theology of fasting

Spiritual authors have written extensively on fasting for centuries, yet we have not found a compelling way to convey its benefits as a spiritual practice to the average Catholic in the pew. To the extent that we have explained it, we present it as a minimalistic, legal requirement. Keeping Ramadan makes me wonder how the practice of fasting can be made to be more than a diet program with a few sacred words attached to it.

Fasting is not a matter of depriving my body to discipline my body. For me, it is depriving my body so that I begin to pray in a different way. Through this deprivation, I become more aware of myself and my world, my hopes and my dreams.

As I mentioned earlier, each year during Ramadan, I become more aware that I want a world where children don’t go hungry, where food doesn’t go to waste, where children are not impeded from learning simply because they live in a household where their parents cannot provide for them. I become more aware of the scandal of poverty and hunger in our world; and of how there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone adequately, but we lack the will to do so.

By fasting, I become more aware of how outrageous that is—and how much I wish it were otherwise. I believe that hope is part of God’s heart, too, that this is what God desires for the world. Becoming more in tune with God’s heart: This is what makes fasting something sacred. And it makes the insights it gives us about our world something that is not only political, but sacred as well.

Bringing back our own traditions

Before I kept Ramadan, I never really thought a whole lot about the importance of fasting. I intellectually appreciated it as part of the Christian monastic tradition. Or I would sometimes fast for a day during a retreat. But now I see that we have a wisdom in our own tradition that we have lost.

I now recognize how a better appreciation of fasting during Lent can deepen our understanding of the mystery of Easter. Easter is not a denial of or escape from the tragedy and even horror of human life. Easter is not a facile sense of optimism, or a belief that things always get better if we can just endure a time of suffering. Easter still bears the scars of Good Friday. The risen Christ still has visible wounds when the disciples recognize he is truly Jesus. He shows them his wounds, the nail marks in his hands and his feet, inviting Thomas to reach and put his hands in his side. That is Easter.

In other words, Easter is not a denial of the shared vulnerability of human life. That vulnerability is not erased. Lenten fasting heightens our sensitivity to the brokenness and injustice present in the world, and deepens our resolve to attend to its wounds and scars. In a mysterious way, fasting deepens our commitment to be the presence of Christ in the world through our love of neighbor as we continue Christ’s mission of healing, truth telling, peacemaking and justice seeking. The fasting of Lent prepares us to not only celebrate Easter, but to become witnesses to the resurrection, and to the hope that the world can become other than what it is now.

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