Almost every year for ten years I stayed for a few days at a Benedictine monastery for women. During an early visit, one of the sisters told me how special Sundays are at the monastery, and over the years I observed many signs of festivity on Sundays. The sisters wore dressier clothes, the food was even more abundant and delicious, and they decorated their beautiful chapel with flowers, textiles, and candles in colors that reflected the church year. I learned that the sisters slept later on Sundays, and I noticed a joyful and relaxed air that permeated the community.
At the time of my first visit to the monastery, I had been observing a Sabbath with great enthusiasm for more than 15 years. At that point in my life, the Sabbath for me was mostly about ceasing from certain things, such as work and multitasking. I had observed the Sabbath as a stay-at-home mom and part-time student, and then later as a freelance writer and editor. On Sundays I took care of my kids without doing housework. I didn’t study or turn on my computer on Sundays. My husband and I didn’t do home repairs or shop for groceries.
The Benedictine sisters added a new perspective for me, Sabbath as the presence of abundance and celebration. Later, when I interviewed Sabbath observers for my book on the Sabbath, I heard stories that represented both aspects of this day of rest: ceasing and celebrating. People talked about a wide variety of kinds of work that they stopped on their day of rest, such as errands, laundry, and pulling weeds, as well as paid work. They talked about keeping the day free from anxiety, arguments with family members, dealing with money, and thinking about items on a to-do list.
Sabbath keepers also talked about practices that made the day feel celebratory: taking the time to cook hot cereal for breakfast, having relaxed meals or walks with friends after church, staying in church clothes all day, journaling, and praying thankfulness prayers with their families. These patterns, described by different people, gave me a sense of the wide variety of options for the ways the Sabbath day can be set apart from the other days of the week. They helped me understand that the Sabbath is about stopping some things, which makes space for rest, celebration, and joy.
The Sabbath is a discipline that affirms the significance of rhythms. Abraham Heschel, in his beautiful book The Sabbath, affirms, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Heschel goes on to describe the underlying reality that this rhythm represents: “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”1
Fasting is another spiritual discipline that affirms the significance of rhythms, another discipline that has strong roots in monastic tradition. In this article I will compare and contrast Sabbath keeping and fasting because their similarities and differences have so much to teach us about being faithful to God in our time.
The Return of Holy Rhythms
Both fasting and Sabbath keeping are enjoying a renaissance in Christian circles in Western countries after being neglected for many years. Those of us older than 40 or 50 can remember when Sundays were more restful, with stores and restaurants closed and opportunities for recreation severely curtailed. The decline in observance of a day of rest happened rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. In somewhat the same way, fasting was a significant spiritual discipline for most of Christian history, yet it fell out of favor in the late 1800s and stayed out of favor until recently. Richard J. Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, points out that he couldn’t find a single book on the topic of Christian fasting published between 1861 and 1954, a period of almost 100 years. He asks, “What would account for this almost total disregard of a subject so frequently mentioned in Scripture and so ardently practiced by Christians throughout the centuries?”2
Foster and other writers on fasting believe it fell out of favor in part because of excesses in the medieval period, when fasting came to be associated with self-punishment. Experts on the Sabbath believe we abandoned the Sabbath in part because of the excesses of the Puritans, who turned the day of rest into a day of joyless rules and regulations, and whose influence was felt in the United States well into the early twentieth century. Both disciplines, which started out as gifts, came to be infused with rigidity and self-righteousness.
Forces at work in our culture have contributed to the increased attention Sabbath keeping and fasting are receiving in our time. Our culture is spinning faster and faster, almost out of control in both busyness and consumption. We are increasingly aware that this pattern cannot possibly be what God intends for us. The Sabbath affirms God’s invitation to rest from ceaseless, frenzied activity, while fasting affirms God’s invitation to rest from constant, mind-numbing consumption.
Both disciplines affirm that God intends us to embrace holy rhythms. Our culture has lost almost all sense of rhythm. Electric light makes day and night irrelevant. The shipping of food all over the globe makes seasons less significant, and the abundance of food gives us no connection with cycles of plenty and want. We have too much to do and too much to consume all around us all the time, and this new form of excess is wearing us out. The Sabbath and fasting give us an opportunity to catch our breath and experience the freedom of stopping.
The Sabbath and fasting, by definition, last for a finite period of time. The Sabbath is usually one whole day each week, although some people observe shorter Sabbath times. The key is the regularity of following a pattern each week. Fasting involves denying oneself something for a set period of time, such as a few hours, a day, a week, or forty days. When we give up something month after month, we are not fasting; instead, we have embraced a change of lifestyle or habit. The benefit of both these disciplines lies in their difference from our normal habits and patterns.
Both disciplines create time that is set apart or holy. People who practice Sabbath keeping and fasting talk about these disciplines as a way to clear away the clutter of everyday life and make space for more important things: reflection, relationships, God’s values, and God’s priorities. Both of these disciplines enable people to listen to God more closely. People who fast and pray say that fasting helps them hear God’s direction in how to pray. People who observe the Sabbath say that the day of rest helps them discern God’s priorities for the other six days, and as a result they work with more purpose and direction.
Both disciplines make space for prayer. In Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are forbidden on the Sabbath, but prayers of thankfulness are encouraged. By stopping and clearing away responsibilities and by choosing ways to celebrate, the Sabbath makes space for thankfulness and gives us the time to notice the blessings that surround us all the time. By stopping consumption of food or other forms of pleasure and recreation, fasting makes space both for thankfulness and intercession. For many people who fast, the desire to eat or partake of the denied pleasure functions as a reminder to pray. One woman who fasts says, “Fasting is like tying a ribbon around your finger to remember God.”3
Some Important Contrasts
The Sabbath and fasting are similar in their embrace of rhythms that help us return to God as the center of our lives. The Sabbath and fasting are also distinct, reflecting profoundly different aspects of life on this beautiful and broken earth.
The two Sabbath commands encourage us to remember the awesome and wonderful acts of God in creation and redemption (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Sabbath is a celebration of God’s abundance and goodness to us, a day to rejoice and thank our Creator and Redeemer. In fasting, on the other hand, we embrace brokenness, sadness, and human need. The fasting stories in the Bible, numbering about two dozen, are associated with mourning, repentance, and the kind of desperate need that manifests itself in heartfelt and urgent prayer. Some people today fast when their prayer needs are so intense that they don’t know what else to do. Augustine wrote that fasting gives wings to our prayers,4 and people who fast talk about the power they experience in their prayers when they fast.
The Sabbath is a day to relish the great truth that God created the world with care, creativity, and abundance. In fasting we voluntarily restrain ourselves because the world is also broken and hurting. One of the sisters at the monastery explained that most Benedictine communities observe one day each week, often Friday, without meat. She said that their motivation is eco-spirituality—eating low on the food chain—in order to tread more lightly on our damaged earth.
She reported that the most common other forms of fasting practiced in her community involve relationships. People choose particular times to make an effort to fast from sharp speech and other habits that damage relationships. “Each of us has our own fatal flaw that we address by fasting,” she said. The community emphasizes fasting from one thing in order to feast on something else, such as fasting from rude displays of anger in order to feast on the gentleness of conversations and the joy of community life. This form of fasting acknowledges that the world is not broken simply with respect to the ecological environment. The human relational environment is also broken.
Human bodies bear the marks of brokenness as well. A friend of mine developed an autoimmune disorder while pregnant, and the death of the baby seemed certain and imminent. She asked an elder in her church to come and pray for her, specifically that she would be able to bear the loss of the baby. The elder fasted before she came to pray, and felt led by God to pray for total healing of mother and baby. God completely healed my friend’s body of the autoimmune disorder, and that baby is now a robust four-year-old with a younger brother. The elder who fasted and prayed was willing to enter into the brokenness of my friend’s medical situation, listen for God’s guidance, and pray with passion and conviction for God’s restoration.
So often we Christians in wealthy countries want life to be smooth, positive, and upbeat. We deserve it, we find ourselves thinking. And something might be wrong with us if we can’t generate those positive feelings. Fasting encourages us to enter into a place where we acknowledge our utter dependence on God to bring light into the all too frequent darkness of life on this earth. In fasting, we acknowledge human sin and failings, and we look to God for solutions.
Given our desire for an upbeat way of looking at life, it might seem likely that Christians in wealthy countries would embrace the Sabbath more readily than fasting. However, the Sabbath requires another kind of humility that we generally find difficult. When we observe the Sabbath, we admit that God can run the universe quite competently without our help for a day. We acknowledge that we are God’s creatures and God’s children, utterly dependent on Someone Else for every breath we take, every bite we eat, and every achievement we accomplish. This requires us to relinquish pride and self-satisfaction, something that does not come easily.
The Sabbath and fasting call us into uncomfortable places. They do it in different ways, but they have in common a call to turn away from our own competence, achievements, desires, and needs. Both involve an invitation to turn toward God for something we cannot find within ourselves or in our broken world. For most of us, we need the help of others to act on this invitation.
Gifts From the Monastery
My yearly visits to the monastery made me think hard about the nature of Christian community and my desires for it. In our individualistic culture, we so easily think of spiritual disciplines as something we do on our own, finding a quiet place alone for things like daily devotional times or centering prayer. Both fasting and Sabbath keeping, as they are practiced by Christians in our time, encourage us to think about the ways spiritual disciplines can be embedded in community life.
The community that keeps the Sabbath together is often a nuclear or extended family. My husband and I experienced communal Sabbath keeping when our children were young. Once, when it had been raining for weeks on end, my husband decided to mow the lawn on a sunny Sunday, something he would not normally have done. We loved that our children were appalled at this choice. “We don’t mow lawns on Sunday, Daddy!”
Single people and married people without children can also enjoy a communal Sabbath. At a church where I used to serve, a group of people in their twenties and early thirties observed the Sabbath together on Sunday afternoons, spending time in relaxed conversation, cooking together, simply hanging out. They embraced the luxury of unscheduled time, something they did not allow themselves on other days.
When I was writing my book on fasting, I interviewed dozens of Christians who fast, and I was amazed at the number who fast in community. Married couples, small groups, even whole congregations fast together. One woman told me about a round-robin fast she organized when her sister was very ill. Family members signed up to fast and pray on specific days, so that on any given day, someone was fasting and praying for the healing of their beloved family member.
Communal fasting has many blessings. The group of people who are fasting can agree on the prayer requests on which they will focus. They can check in with one another to provide support to one another. Since fasting often involves hearing God’s voice in unexpected ways, they can talk over what they are hearing from God and get feedback.
Communal fasting can be practiced with individual freedom regarding the form of the fast. A congregation in South America has weekly fast days and a yearly week-long fast. People are encouraged to fast in whatever ways they are able: some people will fast from all food and drink water; people with strenuous jobs will eat a lighter diet than normal; and children are encouraged to give up a favorite food or form of entertainment. In the United States, with the prevalence of eating disorders, communal fasting must be practiced with this kind of freedom. People with a history of eating disorders should never fast from food in any form, but can join into a communal fast by ceasing from shopping, TV, computer use, or some other common pastime or pleasure, using the time that is freed up to pray and read the Bible.
Another gift from monasteries is engagement in prayer that is concerned both with justice in the world and with the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In many church settings, a dichotomy between these two biblical priorities has created divisions and polarization. Fasting is a discipline that bridges these two concerns. Many people report that when they fast, giving up either food or other pleasures, they experience sympathy for people who live with much less. Their prayers for the poor—those who are poor in material things and those who are poor in spiritual riches—are ignited by fasting.
Both Sabbath keeping and fasting bring freedom to step aside from cultural values and daily preoccupations for a set time and enter into God’s values in a new way. For many people, this freedom doesn’t come easily at first. But for some, even fasting becomes a time of celebration, a time of “feasting” on the presence of God.
Support from others in starting a new practice can be very helpful, even essential. Followers of Jesus who practice Sabbath keeping and fasting report that they are freed to hear to God’s voice in new ways, to rest in God’s goodness and God’s gifts in new ways, and to live more consistently with God’s priorities. These spiritual disciplines are gifts of the freedom that comes through Jesus Christ.
Fasting and Icons
Prayer and fasting play a significant role in the creation of icons. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, fasting never took on aspects of self-punishment, as it did in some Western churches. Instead, fasting is considered to be a way to regain the purity of the Garden. This purity of heart is essential in the creation of icons, which are viewed as windows into heaven. Because of the sacredness of the task, an Orthodox iconographer may fast for a period of forty days before creating an icon and may continue to fast at times while working on it. Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox tradition typically involves abstaining from meat, all other animal products, and oil. This simple diet nurtures purity of heart by affirming that God matters more than the self-indulgence so common in everyday eating.