Tonight begins the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a month during which Muslims will abstain from food and drink from dawn to sunset. It is one of the most sacred times in the Muslim calendar and a special time of family and community.
Fasting is an ancient spiritual practice found in many world religions. The purpose of seasons of fasting is to develop and perfect spiritual disciplines. Such seasons remind us of our dependence on God, on the plight of those who have no choice but to go without food, and of our ability to perfect our discipline. That is, as one friend once said to me, “If we can go without food and drink—things that are good in every way—then we should be able to go without lying, hatred, fraud, cheating, and all the other things that are not good.” Indeed, spiritual disciplines are designed to change our ordinary practice, nut just to create a charming 30-day (or 40-day for Lent) detour on the road of our ordinary lives.
We find ourselves in a time of fasting right now as a community, a nation, and as a world. We are fasting from our regular lives in ways that even the most practiced penitent would find impressive and challenging: fasting from work, fasting from public activity, fasting from gatherings, fasting from favorite restaurants and cafés, and the hardest part of all: fasting from one another—fasting from community.
For even amidst the hardest of our ordinary fasts, we find comfort in community. On Yom Kippur, Jews attend prayer services in synagogue and come together for Kol Nidre and a break fast. During Lent, Christians gather weekly for worship and share in Holy Week observances. During Ramadan, Muslims gather for prayer throughout the day, concluding with prayers and a break-fast meal called the Iftar. In all these and more, our fasting is made easier by our access to the communities with which we take up the burdens. The shared experience and companionship during the fasts makes them easier to bear.
In our global fast, brought on by the necessary responses to a pandemic, we are deprived of this essential human connection in community. And while we make accommodation to gather virtually in online meetings or streamed ceremonies, we know that in the end, we are still fasting from the most important resource we have as human beings: one another.
But as with all times of fasting, we have the opportunity to practice and to perfect some spiritual disciplines that can refresh not only our souls, but the world itself.
We can perfect the care that we as a society must take to protect the most vulnerable among us. We can perfect the ways that we seek to provide resources to those in need of medical care. We can perfect the appreciation we have for those in the health care industry and seek to ensure that they have the resources they need, just was we seek to make their resource available to all who need it. We can perfect the respect and care due our teachers, whose Herculean daily tasks have become evident to so many of us. We can perfect our appreciation for science and the hard work of experts. We can perfect our respect for the dignity—and essential nature—of work we took for granted: farm and produce workers, supermarket workers, mail carriers, and other work that provides our baseline sustenance. We can perfect our appreciation for the fact that in a time of global crisis, we are stronger together than apart. And in the face of a virus that does not discriminate based on race, sex, class, orientation, gender, national origin, political opinion, or religion, we can perfect our appreciation for our common humanity and the common mortality that binds us together.
At the end of each day’s Ramadan fast, the fast is usually broken with a few sips of water and a couple of dates. This small bit of refreshment and sweetness is enough to satisfy for a moment before the prayers that will soon take place; enough to prevent the desire to gorge yourself immediately after sunset.
When this global fast is over, it will be the same way for us. There will be opportunities to reconnect that, though modest, will offer us that same refreshment, that same sweetness after the long wait. And, if we are lucky and have learned the lessons of our fasting, we will not gorge ourselves on the old world, the world that was before COVID-19, but will take the disciplines we have practiced, the spiritual lessons we have learned into the post-pandemic world to make it a better one for all of us.