Ascetic practices of Ramadan and Lent

by Ken Sehested

At sunset tonight, Muslims around the world begin their observance of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which entails fasting (during daylight hours), a renewed focus on prayer and meditation on the Qur’an, and communal generosity. These behavioral admonitions broadly resemble the Christian emphases of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent.

Such ascetic practices are sometimes understood as a condemnation of all human desiring, as if “spiritual” life and “fleshly” are polar opposites.

Such is not the case. What is the case is that human desiring often disorients and confuses spiritual life. Instead of fostering neighborliness, disorderly desires encourage antagonism, greed, and acrimony.

Creation’s abundant blessing—”May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28)—devolves into a curse—”[P]ride is the necklace [of the wicked]; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression (Psalm 73:6-8).

Yes, ascetic practices can themselves become twisted and tortuous. As if God is a sadist and in need of appeasement by means of masochistic acts of human self-denial. As if faith is a surrender to torture. As if spiritual growth is accomplished by bodily distress. As if penitence is reduced to self-flagellation.

In the end, it is a party, not a purge, to which we are oriented. Doing so requires that we humans regularly find ways to check our appetites. In the end, none of us enter Paradise alone but only in the company of those previously deemed unwelcomed or unworthy to sit at the Table of Plenty.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo! (“The glory of God is the human fully alive.”) —St. Irenaeus, 2nd century church leader, in “Against Heresies, c. 185 CE

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