Holy Envy Paper
The world most of us in the west live in, is one of convenience, maximizing the ease with which one can indulge his or her appetite has always been an objective of developed societies. Today, you don’t need to leave your house for practically any reason if you don’t want to. You have online schools, online shopping, online work and online dating. You no longer have to wait for or make your own food, your TV is on demand, you can listen to any music anywhere with the click of a button, and you can spend days pretending to be anything you can think of with the help of a gaming console. We have malls full of clothes and trinkets, aisles of variations of the same product, and enough coffee shops to constitute a small country. Purposefully depriving oneself of anything has gone out of fashion. With prevalent casual sex and pornography firmly established as norms, our appetites for sex are satisfied and then gorged. Anything we desire is at our fingertips, but if even this isn’t enough, we can feed into our appetites some more by altering our perceptions with easily acquired drugs and alcohol. We can not only have almost any primal thing we desire to fulfill our appetites, but we don’t have to wait or suffer long to get it either. With the rise of convenience, also comes the demise of patience. Thus, we get everything at a progressively higher speed, high speed internet and high speed transportation, faster and faster every vessel for the delivery of information or goods will continue to become until finally delivery is instantaneous. Based on these observations, one can argue that, ‘everything at once,’ is the end goal and motto of the modern developed society. With this in mind, the question of how does institutionalized religion fit into this modern society arises?
Before I go any further, let me just make clear that I thoroughly enjoy the conveniences of the modern developed society. I am a huge fan of all the different options and choices, and the independence and freedom gained by having access to every possible variation of a concept. There are innumerable benefits to the society we live in, and these benefits outweigh most of the negatives, my emphasis on the excessive appetites and lack of self-control encouraged in our current society is merely designed to vividly illustrate the problems faced today by institutionalized religion. Religion, especially the three Abrahamic faiths, generally advocates self-restraint and the control of primal appetites in pursuit of a higher truth or reality. One must control oneself and struggle to lead a pious life in order to truly experience the wonders of existence and closeness to God. Animalistic appetites are tools used by evil to drive one away from God and towards a life of vanity and excess. The struggle against this evil is daily and lengthy; most times it is not convenient and requires vast amounts of patience, placing it directly opposite the ideals of our modern society as outlined in the opening of our discussion. In this modern world driven by excessive appetites and the rejection of most things traditional, most religions have had to adapt and ease constraints and rethink doctrine in order to retain membership and influence. In Christianity, for example, we have modern churches with flat screen TVs, bands, and pastors instead of priests, choirs, and candles. Over time, different denominations have emerged, each one evolving and abandoning certain doctrines of the original church, begging the question of whether the traditions established by the founding fathers of Christianity were merely the result of human planning and not divinely influenced. Excessive appetites are no longer dealt with as harshly within most modern Christian communities, and we rarely find specific practices that are put in place to help the community as a whole reign in their appetites. In Islam, however, there is Ramadan, and this is where I find my holy envy.
Ramadan is the dramatic month long fasting experience that has remained a crucial pillar of Islam since its conception. Ramadan teaches discipline, and unites families and the religious community in a struggle against primal appetites, focusing attention to God, generosity, and the spiritual realm. The Qur’an establishes Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, as a time for fasting in the second sura. This sura was revealed after Muhammad had already an established following and a large community in Medina. The Qur’an specifically outlines how and when this fasting should occur, leaving nothing to speculation. Beginning with general guidelines for fasting, “You who believe, fasting is prescribed to you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God. Fast for a specific number of days, but if one is ill, or on a journey, then on other days later. For those who can fast only with extreme difficulty, there is a way to compensate – feed a needy person.” (Sura 2:183-184). Next, the official call to fast during Ramadan is made, “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong. So any one of you who sees in that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. [Prophet], if my servants ask you about Me, I am near. I respond to those who call Me, so let them respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be guided.” (Sura 2:185-186). Finally, the specification of when sex, food and drink is permitted during Ramadan is made, “You [believers] are permitted to lie with your wives during the night of the fast: they are [close] as garments to you, as you are to them. God was aware that you were betraying yourselves, so He turned to you in mercy and pardoned you: now you can lie with them – seek what God has ordained for you – eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct from the black. Then fast until nightfall. Do not lie with them during the nights of your devotional retreat in the mosques: these are the bounds set by God, so do not go near them. In this way God makes His messages clear to people, that they may guard themselves against doing wrong.” (Sura 2:187). In the last ayat of this section concerning Ramadan, we find an overall proclamation of what the lessons learned from this fasting experience should be, “Do not eat up your property wrongfully, nor use it to bribe judges, intending sinfully and knowingly to eat up parts of other people’s property.” (Sura 2:188).
The month of Ramadan as illustrated in the Qur’an is devoted to training oneself to resist gluttony and the glorification of God. You cannot eat, drink, or have sex from sunrise to sunset throughout the entire month of Ramadan. Allowances are made for special circumstances, and traditionally pre-pubescent children, pregnant women and the sick are exempt from strict fasting. However, in most cases, each day of fasting missed during the month must be made up later in the year. Ramadan also serves to increase compassion for those in need of the basic necessities for life, driving ones focus outward toward the community. The unity experienced with one’s family and religious community during the month is also an important benefit. This dramatic expression of faith by all Muslims inspires a great deal of holy envy for me. In Christianity, there is no such unifying practice among all the denominations, and even though fasting is practiced in the traditional denominations, it is not nearly as dramatic and widespread. For a large religion existing in today’s modern society to explicitly provide the means to combat the pressures of a society centered on indulging appetites is remarkable and I believe greatly beneficial to its members. I come from the Russian Orthodox faith tradition, a tradition famous for retaining the original character of the Christian church as outlined by the founding fathers, even more so than the Catholic Church. Therefore, the Russian Orthodox Church still mandates fasts of different degrees throughout most of the year. However, unfortunately it has become less common for members to actually practice fasting, especially in Russian Orthodox Churches located outside of Russia.
In the Orthodox tradition fasting has two dimensions, spiritual and physical. During times of fasting one must abstain from sinful thoughts as well as certain foods. Fasting is rarely a full abstention from food, most fasts in the Russian Orthodox tradition mean abstaining from meat and meat products, dairy (eggs and cheese) and dairy products, fish, olive oil, and wine. On some fast days wine and oil are permitted and less frequently fish is allowed. Generally, about half of the year is spent fasting in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Fasting in Christianity dates back to traditions that can be found in the Old Testament and the New Testament, Moses fasted for a lengthy period of time before communicating with God. Moses spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28). The prophet Isaiah wrote about fasting to bring oneself closer to God centuries before Christ’s coming, “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him… then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” (Isaiah 58:6-8). Also crucial to the development of fasting in Christianity, is the fact that in Genesis Adam and Eve only ate plants (Gen. 1:30, 9:3), thus fasting returns us in a way to paradise. In the New Testament, Christ talks of fasting properly, not for the attention of man, in an attempt to display how pious and better than the rest you are, but humbly and joyfully, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16). Fasting shouldn’t be viewed as explicit suffering for the sake of God, to the contrary it should be viewed as voluntarily and happily abstaining from certain foods and actions in order to bring oneself closer to God and increase ones spiritual focus.
Although an integral part of the founding tradition, most modern Christian denominations fail to emphasize fasting as a tool for spiritual growth. Even in the denominations that do require fasts, the importance and traditional significance of fasting remains unemphasized and thus most members of the community never practice fasting. In a society of growing appetites, gluttony and convenience above all else, the importance of training oneself to resist temptations and grow closer to God has never been greater for communities of faith. The traditions of Christianity and Islam have explicitly provided the tools for accomplishing such a task, however by making fasting during Ramadan one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims appear more likely to fast than most Christians, as it is stringently required and its importance widely emphasized.