Fasting is as old as mankind; it is not, and never has been, exclusive to Christianity. Judaism, Islam, and Buddhist faiths all fast, and Hindu yogis are famous for their colon cleansing.
Primitive tribes in the Amazon, central Africa and remote Asian mountains practise fasting to recover their health and vitality. Therapeutic fasting is also part of Taoist training regimes. The ancient Greeks fasted for health and longevity, and were known for their physical robust health. Ritual fasting was part of the Eleusinian mysteries in honour of Demeter, the goddess of fertility.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC – 375 BC) considered the father of modern medicine – and who planted the foundations for medical practice as we know it today – considered certain foods as remedies for ailments, however his thinking was that only through fasting is there the true healing power awakened. The Greeks were great believers in fasting, Plato said that he fasted for great mental and physical efficiency, Aristotle who was Plato’s student also fasted and 600 years later the Greek doctor Galen prescribed fasts for his patients.
There are two objectives for fasting – spiritual and physical – and both are equally valid. Spiritual masters like Pythagoras (569 BC – 475 BC) the great mathematician would not admit any of his students into higher teachings unless they had first purified themselves by fasting for forty days. Early Christians fasted as the Jewish people did, a complete abstinence from all food on special days. It was in monastic life that fasting originated. Later the wider populace adopted the fasting habits of the monks and fasted for a period of time.
As a rule, the monks never ate meat such as those who were wealthy enough would, and would only fast by eliminating all animal products from their diet. True fasting, as the ancient Greeks knew it to be, was to not to eat at all and cleanse your body of toxins. This is what they considered as fasting was about cleansing physically and spiritually. Through this elimination of toxins the spirit was thought to find itself. The first explicit reference to a forty-day fast in Christianity is in the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) where the rules were set covering the duration of the fast and the quality and quantity of food consumed.
By this time the official church doctrine had began to move away from the way fasting was intended by the Greek forefathers. As I have never read the New or the Old Testament I can’t refer to either book but I have heard that Christ fasted for 40 days. But as we know, Pythagoras had endured the forty day fast long before Christ came into the picture and I will once again stick my neck out and say that the Christians adapted the old ways and made them new, changing names, places and time.
Today, all that fasting is in the Christian culture – be that Orthodox or Catholic church – is being vegetarian, and in some cases, vegan for a week. In Greece, during the pre-Easter fast period, my family would pack up and we would all go to Spetses and for a week prior to Easter, the food was only nistisima (fasting food), it was a feast, it was delicious, we all ate till we would burst and we would go back to Athens two to three kilos lighter. So if this is fasting then I am happy to do it, but it is a long way away from what its intentions were in the real sense of fasting for the spirit and the body.
As a small child in Greece, and later in Australia, growing up I have memories of being made to fast. But as all children crave nourishment to sustain themselves I was hungry and I remember stealing food and eating under my blanket at night. I say this as my belief is that fasting is a universal natural response to sickness and well-being and one must be well aware of the significance. Therefore, it is through maturity in thought and spirit that we can take on fasting in any serious way. It can never be imposed, but it can be taught.