These spiritual disciplines are deeply interconnected. They form one seamless web to impel the believer along the path of growth and maturity. The fasting period(1) is intimately connected to prayer and pilgrimage. In the temporary denial of the body's demands, awareness of conversation with God is heightened. The soul is urged along the roads of a spiritual pilgrimage that is the inward mirror of the outward voyage each pilgrim undertakes toward the sacred heart of his or her faith.
There is a Qiblih of the Bahá'í world, and there is a Qiblih of the heart. Each points to the other. The conscious decision to forgo food and drink reminds the penitent believer that God has commanded this step. The reminder urges the soul to meditate on the Lord's purposes and to ask the Lord for guidance. God, through His grace and mercy, furthers the faithful ones on their journey to the ultimate goal, to "Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting."(2)
Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in ordaining the fast is not to mortify the flesh as ascetics would do. Neither is it to compel the believer toward self-hatred and morbidity. Fasting is a symbol, a sign, a reminder of the realities that surround and transcend the workday existence of our usual petty concerns.
Bahá'ís often refer to fasting as a law. This description is deceptive; it risks demeaning the spirit of the fast by confusing it with our current notion of law as force and compulsion. Bahá'u'lláh, in His deep wisdom and mercy, ordains the fasting period without making it a burden. This is not simply because He has shortened it in comparison to the Christian and Islamic fasts. He has made fasting a personal obligation, freed from the constraints and dictatorial possibilities of institutional enforcement. Fasting is the responsibility of each individual to undertake to the best of his or her ability, within the requirements of that person's life, work and circumstances.
Bahá'u'lláh has commanded exemptions to the fast for those whose health, physical growth, or safety might be compromised by adherence to it. These exemptions are as much obligations as is the abstention from food and drink. The Lord of the Age does not compel us to harm ourselves by excessive zeal in fasting.
These thoughts come from 27 years of experience as a Bahá'í. I once believed that my own well-being and salvation depended on a punctilious observance of the most stringent and rigid requirements of Bahá'u'lláh's commandments. Such an attitude led to my attempt to fast even when I became ill. I developed an excessively critical eye toward the attempts of my fellow believers to observe the obligation, including their use of the exemptions. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States reminded us in a feast letter that we live in a society in which people "pride themselves on being bitterly critical in order to justify their conflicts with others."
I believe that Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in ordaining the fast goes well beyond our puny conceptions. It was not to create a law by which to parade our good works and piety to others, nor a yardstick to condone the judging of others' sincerity in observance of their private spiritual obligations. Rather, it is Bahá'u'lláh's map to the moderate path that He so unfailingly recommended. He reveals the following in the Kitab-i-Aqdas:
"Lament not in your hours of trial, neither rejoice therein; seek ye the Middle Way which is remembrance of Me in your afflictions and reflection over that which may befall you in future. Thus informeth you He Who is the Omniscient, He Who is aware."(3)
Whether an individual Bahá'í is fasting fully, partially or not at all, the month of Loftiness is a reminder and remembrance. We remember who we are, with Whom we must converse, to Whom we owe our allegiance, and toward Whom we must journey. Thus reminded, we see Bahá'u'lláh standing before us, always beckoning us forward into the light.
1. The Bahá'í fasting period takes place between March 2-20 inclusive. During this time, Bahá'ís do not drink or eat between sunrise and sunset.
2. Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh From the Arabic No. 13.
3. Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, no. 43 p. 35.