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Dieting for God

Fasting as a Spiritual Experience, Not as a Fashion Statement, Draws Growing Numbers of Adherents


To feel good and look good, Americans spend millions each year on everything from tummy tucks to health club memberships.

Through it all the mantra is exercise and diet.

Now, with the Christian penitential season of Lent fast approaching, millions of the faithful are preparing to go on a diet for God.

The goal is not to lose weight or to indulge one's vanity but to practice a spiritual discipline--one that believers say sharpens their awareness of God and God's purpose in their lives. It's called fasting.

"We see in the natural sense those who want to fast just to get their weight down," said Sister Mary Colombiere of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic women's religious order in Alhambra.

"There's a kind of supernatural fasting, too, so that we can become self-disciplined and rise above the natural to live the supernatural life."

Lent begins with next week's observance of Ash Wednesday for Western liturgical churches, including the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. Eastern Orthodox churches begin their 40 day "Great Lent" on March 13, known as "Clean Monday," because believers abstain from eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy products.

Fasting is a widespread religious phenomenon. Indeed, religious leaders say they can't recall a time in contemporary history when fasting has been so widely practiced.

This week, for example, members of the Bahai faith began fasting to take their minds away from the physical world and concentrate on spiritual awareness. While the Bahai have no fixed rituals or sacraments, all members are expected to participate in a 19-day fast before the feast of Naw-Ruz, which is the religion's New Year celebration. This year's fast ends March 21.

Hindus, many of whom currently maintain a fast for Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction, also see fasting as a key to focusing on the divine. The Hindi word for fasting, upavasa, means "sitting near" the divinity.

"Fasting has a way of neutralizing or minimizing chaos in the body," said Lina Gupta, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Glendale Community College and an authority on Hinduism. Instead of focusing on food, "Your whole body would assist you in going in that spiritual direction."

Among Jews, 53% nationwide attend services on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, according to a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1998. Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he believes a growing number are participating in the traditional Yom Kippur fast.

"There's a deeper sense that fasting has some real meaning if it's attached to the notion of giving up for a day all of those material things that claw at us, including our appetites," Fields said.

Usually associated with faiths that observe a liturgical calendar--Jews on Yom Kippur and Muslims during their holy month of Ramadan, in addition to Christians at Lent--fasting is fast coming into vogue among evangelical Protestants as well. Last year, for example, the National Assn. of Evangelicals called for 40 days of fasting and prayer by 30 million members of the association's member churches.

In one large demonstration of fasting and prayer, 2 million Protestants from more than 40 countries last November joined in a worldwide 24-hour fast, according to Campus Crusade for Christ, which led the event.

Opinions vary as to why the number of those who fast is growing among evangelical Protestants. Clearly there is a concern for the moral direction of the country, Bright said. Evangelicals are mindful of the scriptural injunction found in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

Others say evangelicals, whose worship services can seem austere, may yearn for a more tactile and traditional expression of an inward search for holiness.

"When the Scripture says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and strength, often we Christians may pray while we are comfortable sitting in a plush chair with one hand on a Diet Coke and the other in a bag of peanuts," said the Rev. Kevin W. Mannoia, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. "The virtue of going without food or other things somehow moves God to do something extraordinary."

Rapturous experiences are reported by some who fast. Immersed in what they believe to be God's presence and overcome by a sense of well-being, they report a feeling of peace and unity that passes understanding.

"Something wonderful happens," said Bill Bright, founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright, 78, has fasted 40 days for each of the past six years, drinking only juice and taking vitamin and mineral supplements. He cautioned that those considering a fast should begin slowly, and first consult their physician.

When he fasts, Bright said that he has a sense of entering into "protracted communion" with the God of the universe.

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