Pancake day marks the eve of Lent, 40 days of Christ fasting in the wilderness. I was invited by a Christian in my neighbourhood in Aspley, Nottingham to bless their event. He told me that in 1767, the Squire (owner) of Aspley Hall was a Roman Catholic, those were dangerous days for them when they were burnt at the stake or fined. However the Squire asked his Catholic priest to bless the food and the festivities at the first pancake day there. Today things are much better for the Catholics, however in their place there is ‘the new Catholic’ a fifth column ‘the Muslims’. Simon Banks wrote “it is for this reason that I would like to educate the ‘suspicious locals’ and therefore have invited the local Imam to bless the pancake celebrations”. So I stood at the very spot where 246 years ago the frightened Catholic priest would have blessed the pancakes. Here I reflect on the similarities of Lent and the month of Ramadan.
Our faiths provide clear teachings and guidance on how to live an austere life, amongst the many spiritual disciplines and exercises that have been practised by religious people abstinence from food and drink in the form of fasting is very common in most religious traditions. The Muslims fast in the month of Ramadan, the Christians during the Lent period, six weeks preceding Easter Sunday abstained from rich foods, the Hindus also fast on certain days of the year.
Although Christian Lent and the Muslim Ramadan are two very distinct devotions. The Muslims do not eat or drink anything nor have sexual relations between dawn and dusk, this can be anything between 12 to 18 hours in winter and summer. Respectively, the Christians on the other hand, choose to give up their favourite foods, and have no set time, so it is considerably easier.
What is the purpose of fasting during Lent or Ramadan?
Fasting is a good way of learning to control one’s desires and basic bodily instincts. It is actually a powerful way of making the point that I am the master of my own destiny. I can control my eating and drinking habits. During this month Muslims fast all day, avoiding food and drink from dawn till sunset. They engage in the remembrance of God, silently and loudly. The entire family, the whole community immerses itself in spiritual devotion. Fasting is a wonderful spiritual exercise, it is an attempt to become spiritual and to disengage and detach temporarily from the material world. Fasting is not just avoiding food and drink but a powerful shield against lowly desires and vices. It teaches self restrain and helps to develop patience. This is austere living. Austerity is a word that we hear very often these days in the media, I wonder how many times we have bothered to look up the meaning of this oft used word? The dictionary meaning of austerity is; severely simple, morally strict and to be stern. Simple living means to be free of luxuries, the paraphernalia of modern gadgets, and practicing the three holy R’s of environmentalists: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, whilst morally strict would mean to be kind and caring, patient and forgiving, generous and gentle. The idea of sternness is to take life seriously and to believe that we have a purpose in life.
In addition to refreshing the bond with God, it’s an opportunity to develop a caring attitude towards others. A time to be charitable, throughout the month Muslim charities in Britain will collect millions of pounds for developmental and relief work for the poor.
The Health Benefits of Fasting
Although the primary purpose of fasting is ‘so that you may develop God-consciousness’ (Baqarah;186), it carries health benefits as well. The obvious is weight loss, for thirty days a whole meal and a snack or two are taken away from our daily food intake. This is equivalent to about 1,000 calories per day, 30000 calories in a month, roughly the amount needed to burn off eight pounds (3kg). Fasting brings about a complete physiological change, giving rest for the digestive tract and the central nervous system. The trouble is what we miss during fasting we often more than make up for afterwards at iftar.